Metro Transit Bus 007 has a secret weapon. Code name: WiRover.
Tucked inside a locked cabinet in the lumbering blue and white city bus is a small black box. It’s part of a UW-Madison research project that could one day lead to Internet access in every car, truck, mini-van, bus and train.
Starting now, passengers on two of Metro’s 200 buses can get free Wi-Fi while they ride. As they use the system, computer science students will gather information that will help them develop an inexpensive and seamless mobile Internet service.
“Two buses aren’t a lot at the moment,” Metro spokesman Mick Rusch said Friday. “But it’s just another way to entice riders.”
WiRover was developed by the Wisconsin Wireless Networking Systems Laboratory, known as WiNGS, founded and run by Suman Banerjee, associate professor in the UW-Madison Department of Computer Sciences.
The system doesn’t rely on expensive satellite-enabled devices or contracts with particular cell phone companies, which can have dead spots in their coverage. WiRover works with all cellular companies operating in an area to provide seamless, high-capacity Internet service as buses travel in and around Madison, Banerjee said.
WiRover is so new Metro still is drawing up the signs to put on Bus 007 and the other Wi-Fi-enabled bus, 942. And since Metro randomly assigns buses to routes, it may take some secret-agent style skills to find them.
On Friday, 007 was spotted idling at the West Transfer Station on Tokay Boulevard near Whitney Way. Driver Brenda Harris said she was just notified WiRover was on board. Apparently the location of the black box was on a need-to-know basis. Harris said she had no idea where it was.
Passenger Kiitan Akinniranye, a junior at UW-Madison, pulled up WiRover on her smartphone. She said she already uses mobile Wi-Fi on her laptop computer during trips home to Milwaukee on Badger Bus.
“It’s a good deal,” said Akinniranye, who was on her way to West Towne Mall. “You can always stay connected.”
One Van Galder bus, which runs between Madison and Chicago and elsewhere, also is testing the WiRover service. Amtrak offers a different mobile Wi-Fi service on some of its routes in the eastern U.S.
WiNGS and WiRover are supported by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and the National Science Foundation. Banerjee said his goal is to develop the most reliable, cost-effective mobile Internet service possible — one that eventually could be added to all new vehicles.