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Internet on a Roll

Wi-Fi on the Highway: Rest Stops Go High-Tech

 

by Aaron Reed

Tamara Dwyer logs on on wirelessly at a rest area
Aaron Reed
Tamara Dwyer checks Waco restaurant reviews and gets directions at a Texas Department of Transportation highway safety rest area on Interstate 35 north of Austin.

Wireless Hot Spot Here!
Aaron Reed
Travelers are reminded by roadside signs and placards at Texas rest areas that free wireless Internet connections are available.

Wireless Internet
Courtesy ofTxDoT
This logo appears on highway signs near Texas rest areas

Wireless Internet
Courtesy ofTxDoT
Texas' 98 highway safety rest areas are spread far and wide across the Lone Star State. The state's transportation department provides maps and tabular lists of WiFi hot spots on its Web site.

A Nice Portal

Highway Wi-Fi providers can shape road trippers' Internet experience by designing effective portals. Texas has done an especially nice job in its development of "TexTreks," a mashup of safety information and other travel information that includes tourism and cultural information from TravelTex.com, the Texas Historical Commission, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Commission on the Arts. The portal can not only help a road tripper get to his destination, but may also suggest a few side trips as well.

One of the joys of a road trip is getting away from it all -- away from the office, the phone, the computer. Unless of course you can't get away, or your office is on wheels, or you're, say … a writer on the road and on deadline. Then, finding reliable connectivity can be a huge headache.

Texas has addressed this challenge by installing free, unlimited wireless Internet service at 98 of the state's highway safety rest areas. I first experienced this Wi-Fi network last fall at a rest area on Interstate Highway 35 between Austin and Waco. Tamara and I stopped to use the restrooms, noticed the "Free Wi-Fi" signs and booted up a laptop. Within minutes we were cruising the Web at a blazing 11 megabits per second. We checked a couple of restaurant reviews, downloaded a map of our destination, and took off down the road again.

I was chagrined to find out later that the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDoT) hadn't installed the service just for me.

"The idea was to provide a service that would cause business travelers to stop and take a break from driving during long road trips," says Andrew Keith, manager of the Safety Rest Area Program for TxDoT.

The state piloted the program in two counties in 2003, and then signed a service contract with Coach Connect, the RV business unit of Road Connect, Inc., a company based in Austin, Texas. Initially, users were allowed two hours of free access and then were charged a subscription fee, with about 20 percent of the money going back into the state's coffers.

There were few takers for the subscription service, and when Coach Connect was sold to another company in May 2007, Road Connect agreed to continue providing the service through the fall of 2007 while TxDoT prepared a new request for proposals. At the end of last year, the state was paying about $38,000 per month for the service, which was averaging about 15,000 sessions and 739,400 minutes of usage per month.

"The service is widely used and is an effective way to attract drivers to take a break while driving," Keith says.

Reducing driver fatigue

Taking a break, that's what Andrew Keith really cares about -- not news updates, e-mail, stock quotes or any of the other information that travelers can download at rest stops. His concern is safety, and he has good reason. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that from 1989 through 1993, driver drowsiness and fatigue contributed to 100,000 crashes a year on U.S. highways. During that same five-year period, drowsiness and fatigue were factors in an annual average of 1,357 fatal crashes, killing 1,544 people each year. The NHTSA also reports that Texas has the highest number of fatigue-related accidents in the United States.

Other states have followed Texas' Wi-Fi lead. Iowa began installing wireless Internet access at rest stops in 2004, and now offers Wi-Fi at 39 of its 40 Interstate rest areas. Other states offering Wi-Fi access -- either in pilot programs or as fully developed networks -- include Washington, California, Oregon, Kansas, Florida and Minnesota.

The California Department of Transportation (CalTrans), for instance, installed free Wi-Fi last July at the Phillip Raine rest area north of Tipton in Tulare County and at the Enoch Christofferson rest area south of Turlock in Stanislaus County. During the pilot program, which runs through mid-July 2008, Caltrans officials say they will evaluate the service according to three criteria: travelers' needs, the technical requirements of a statewide rollout, and the likelihood of developing public-private partnerships to run the project.

But who will pay?

Paying for roadside Wi-Fi service is likely to be the big challenge.

"The business models are still being worked out, and each state has different motivators," says Frank Drew, a founder of Road Connect. "I do expect that wireless service will become a standard amenity at least at heavily trafficked rest areas around the country."

The state of Washington, which currently offers Wi-Fi at 28 of its 42 highway rest areas - as well as on some ferries -- is another Road Connect customer. There, customers are offered service at $2.95 per 15-minute session or, less expensively, through daily and monthly subscription fees; in all cases, maps, current highway conditions and other traveler information available on the Washington State Department of Transportation Web site can be accessed for free.

For now, Texas funds its Wi-Fi services out of maintenance budgets. Connectivity is obtained through satellite uplink/downlink equipment, and routers and distribution equipment are located in areas inaccessible to the public.

The Texas Wi-Fi initiative for highway safety rest areas doesn't address the dashboarder's dream of continuous, rolling coverage, which, of course, might actually be detrimental to highway safety. With hot spots located only on Interstate highways and major U.S. Highways, it bypasses some 57,000 miles of state highways and farm-to-market roads.

But to TxDoT's credit, when the department decided to move forward with the program, it cited some of the Wi-Fi hot spots in truly out-of-the-way areas. You can find one on U.S. Highway 90 between D'Hanis and Sabinal, for example, and another on Interstate Highway 10, 26 miles west of Fort Stockton. Travelers are lucky to get cell phone reception in remote areas like those, never mind Wi-Fi access.

Speaking of cell phones

For travelers with smaller Internet ambitions, cell phones may be the way to go. Equipped with a "smart phone," a road tripper can easily check e-mail or upload a bit of text and a photo without having to fish the laptop out of the back seat.

Denver native and RTA forum member Willy Hernandez blogged a nearly 3,000-mile, 11-day road trip from his cell phone last fall. The text portions of the entries were necessarily brief (no one's going to type an opus with his thumbs, I'm guessing), but the near-real-time photos were excellent and gave a real sense of what Willy and his wife were experiencing on their journey.

Willy encountered only a few places where he couldn't get a message out. He wrote on the RTA forum that only about 10 percent of his route was not covered by the AT&T network, even though he stayed off the Interstate highways for most of the trip. According to RoadTripAmerica.com founder Mark Sedenquist, that's a huge improvement from just five years ago, when he found coverage across less than half of California, and then only near major highways.

Willy's main blogging tool was a Samsung Blackjack, a QWERTY smart phone that can achieve data rates of close to 800 kilobits per second. With a 1.3-megapixel camera -- and all else being equal -- that's just a couple of seconds to transmit a post to Blogger.com through either Multimedia Messaging Service or e-mail.

An increasingly large number of handheld devices can be used as tethered modems, and some smart phones, like Research in Motion's popular BlackBerry, advertise "broadband-like speed." But many cell phones rely on busy digital (and sometimes even analog) networks that offer only middling dial-up connections.

Of course, a growing number of hotels, restaurants, coffee shops and even laundromats now offer Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, in his excellent tutorial on configuring e-mail for Wi-Fi access, RTA contributor Del Albright wrote in 2006 that he was finding more and more of these hot spots are charging for access.

My experience in Texas has been different. I find more and more locations offering Wi-Fi for free -- places like mom-and-pop hotels in Menard, Texas, and the McDonald's on U.S. Highway 71 between Austin and Bastrop.

Just a few years ago, being able to use a cell phone to call ahead to change a reservation or to check if a restaurant was open was a revolutionary convenience. Now, using your phone's Web browser or a free Wi-Fi hot spot, you can peruse the menu en route and - after dinner - e-mail a friend to share the experience.

For a (perhaps) comprehensive list of free Wi-Fi networks, check out WiFiFreeSpot.com.

Aaron Reed
1/18/08

 

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