Internet for all: The plan to turn one billion vehicles into free WiFi hotspots

Data connections in busy cities can be difficult to pin down, but a plan to make all vehicles into free WiFi hotspots could change this. Having already worked in one city, it could be rolled out to more

The ‘Internet of Things’ is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot by startups and internet professionals, but it’s rare that a system connects more than one or two devices at once.

Creating a network of vehicles that are all connected to the internet, provide free WiFi to those in and around the vehicles and also collect data about the environment they’re moving in, is an idea that encapsulates what the buzzword should be trying to achieve.

João Barros, the founder of Veniam, is the person the idea belongs to. Vehicles are fitted with a WiFi hotspot powered by the vehicle, which then allows anyone to connect to the network.

Screen-Shot-2014-12-07-at-9.32The project would be funded by cities in order to bring internet access to their inhabitants.

The ambition is a big one. The company wants to connect all one billion vehicles on the planet. At the moment there are only 608 vehicles that are connected. Even the most optimistic person would concede that there’s still some way to go.

An “internet of moving things” is what Barros calls it, and vehicles are only the first step. He wants the company to eventually expand to other moving technology.

“In the future you are going to have drones, robots, all sorts of devices, wearables, that are moving with people,” he said.

He believes it is a better way to help provide internet in locations where the infrastructure does not exist to allow a traditional type of connection to the internet.

“The other area where I think Veniam can be relay transformative is in reducing the digital divide and providing more people with internet access,” Barros said.

“You look at Google thinking about using balloons, you see Facebook with drones, but I would say that vehicles are closer to Earth.

“If every vehicle becomes a hotspot and with a mesh network we can build a really reliable wireless infrastructure that can even survive in places where you don’t have power or in situations where you have a catastrophe, because the vehicles have large batteries so they continue to be operating even if the power grid is down.”

Creating the network

Aside from the potential to expand the internet’s reach to those who do not have access to it, the primary use of a connected series of vehicles would be to provide an internet connection to as many people in cities as possible.

The system works by creating a large net of vehicles that are connected to the internet with WiFi hotspots in each. In addition there are vehicle-to-vehicle links, and vehicle-to-infrastructure links, as well as using cellular data when the gap needs to be bridged.

Screen-Shot-2014-12-07-at-9.27Despite the low-sounding number of vehicles that are currently connected, there has been some success for the company, which has managed to amass 95,000 internet users in Porto, Portugal. The authorities running decided to invest in the set-up and it has helped to create a network which is widely used.

“The entire public bus fleet, taxis, trucks and more than 600 vehicles are doing two things today: they are expanding wireless coverage by providing people with free WiFi and they are gathering huge amounts of data from the city, which we are now using to improve city services and quality of life,” Barros said.

The service doesn’t cost anything to connect to and there is no login or personal details require  by the network.

The company, which was a spin-out from the University of Porto, is now based in Silicon Valley and is trying to target American and Asian cities.

Big data boom

Providing an free internet connect to those who live in cities will be a massive coup for any governments and politicians who want to invest in the technology, but there are also hidden additional benefits as well.

The WiFi points attached to buses, taxis and garbage trucks, are able to integrate with sensors to collect data about the environment they’re moving in.

Attaching simple sensors that can monitor speed, acceleration and more, can give authorities information about the transport system.
Barros said this helps administrators improve city infrastructure and make it easier for commuters and tourists to use public transport.

“We’re able to help the city decide where to put bus stops, where to put bus lanes, how to time the traffic lights using high resolution data collected by the bus,” he said.

Screen-Shot-2014-12-07-at-9.24

Images courtesy of Veniam

In Porto the technology has been fitted on the garbage trucks. Barros said this has helped to cut down on the number of garbage collections that need to be made, reducing costs for the city.

“We placed little sensors with WiFi across different garbage containers that can tell you if the garbage containers are full or not, and the vehicles ask the containers as they pass by if they are full.

“They store this information and they send it to the cloud in such a way that the garbage collection trucks now only need to go to those containers that actually are full and need to be emptied.”

While there is a long way to go for Veniam to connect all of the world’s vehicles, the start that has been made to try and turn the ‘internet of things’ into a reality rather than buzzword.

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