CyberShuttle: Mobile Hotspot on Campus

By Cheryl Meyer

June 21, 2002

First the café. Then an airport lounge. And now -- a bus? UCSD's CyberShuttle provides full 802.11-based Internet access to riders. It might be the beginning of a trend for public transportation.

Wireless Fidelity, or Wi-Fi has obviously generated headlines for months with its rapid growth into homes, businesses, and public hotspots. Few innovations have struck a nerve as much as the CyberShuttle, a Wi-Fi-equipped bus originating from the University of California San Diego (UCSD).

Unveiled this spring, the broadband bus allows riders to send e-mail, download files and surf the Web -- all at high-data speeds via their laptops -- during their half-hour commute. Impressive? Sure. The real eye-opener is what this means for the future and for commuters at large. Faculty, staff and students say their cyberbus could mark the beginning of wireless public transportation across the country.

"I think it's really a glimpse of things to come," said Ben Shapiro, an independent study student at UCSD who has ridden the bus. "I think it's a cool technology, but what's really cool is the possible environmental applications it has. If even 5% of people start using it, there will be fewer cars on the road. And it's a lot less stress."

The idea for the shuttle came in part from Ramesh Rao, a professor in the school's engineering department and director of the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology. Rao said he spent a weekend trying to figure out how to meld 802.11b with a 3G high-speed cellular data network.

Eventually, UCSD academics conceived the idea of the broadband bus, which combines a fully mobile 802.11b wireless local area network inside the vehicle, with Web access through Qualcomm Inc.'s high-speed, wide-area data work, 1xEV (formerly CDMA2000), installed at campus and at the company's San Diego headquarters. Qualcomm's facilities are equipped with 1xEV antennas, which provide coverage up to a 10-mile radius. The company's technology, CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), works by converting speech into digital information, which is then sent as a radio signal over a wireless network. Riders access the Internet at speeds up to 2.4 megabits per second, and can even watch streaming video or listen to high-fidelity music.

"From a technological viewpoint, what's interesting is the bus drives around at high speeds and it can hold an [Internet] connection," Rao said. "This is exactly what cellular systems are designed to do."

University officials couldn't pinpoint the cost, but they say it's minimal. Regardless, UCSD has received plenty of funding to support their efforts. Qualcomm, along with other wireless companies including Intersil of Irvine, Calif., Applied Micro Circuits of San Diego , and wireless giant Ericsson of Sweden, have contributed about $140 million to the Institute, as part of a state-funded program. (Ericsson Wireless Communications, a division of Ericsson, is based in San Diego.)

The state of California promised to kick in $100 million to the institute if UCSD could come up with an additional $200 million from outside sources. The institute is a joint venture between UCSD and the University of California, Irvine, and the broadband bus is part of an ongoing initiative undertaken by the Administrative Computing and Telecommunications division at UCSD, UCSD's Irwin and Joan Jacobs School of Engineering and the Cal-IT institute.

"We like to think we are quite a bit ahead of the competition," Rao said. "Part of it is the willingness to engage with this stuff -- but part of it is having the right industry partners so you can get access to these technologies ahead of time."

Qualcomm led the effort with a $15 million investment. The company, which pioneered CDMA, earmarked $25 million to California schools two years ago to help bridge the "Digital Divide." At that time founder Irwin Jacobs said Qualcomm aimed to "help make Internet access affordable and maintainable in all regions of the country."

How things have changed in a two-year span. UCSD's campus is already Wi-Fi-savvy. More than 1,200 campus users log on to the Internet from their laptops or personal digital assistants, which are equipped with a wireless card. These users in turn can ride the CyberShuttle and log on, officials say.

Other institutions are also using the technology. Tulane University in New Orleans, The American University in Washington, D.C., and the University of Southern Mississippi, among others are all Wi-Fi equipped or are working on installing 802.11b. Even high schools have joined the club. The New York City school system has joined with IBM, to outfit Manhattan's schools with 802.11b capabilities.

At UCSD, reaction has been positive, but adoption slow. Faculty and staff members typically ride the bus from suburban Sorrento Valley to campus, in La Jolla, and back again -- a 20-minute ride one way. Computer-dependent students, seen as the most likely users, don't ride the CyberShuttle much.

"I had a couple faculty members contact me saying that they like it," said Don McLaughlin, assistant director in charge of the telecom operations at UCSD. "They like the fact that they can be on the shuttle and use the time to be productive."

"It's excellent," adds Tony Doan, director of of the university's computer support for the computer science and engineering department, and a regular rider of the bus. "I initially used it for low-bandwidth things, but as I got used to it I started using it for large file transfers, and the speed was the same as if I was at home on my cable modem."

Doan said UCSD's CyberShuttle could be the wave of the future, but spectrum issues have to be resolved. "Everybody is fighting to get more frequency space," he said.

Rao said the college recently launched another CyberShuttle for the "campus loop," and plans to equip all the university buses eventually. UCSD is also pioneering a "cyber-ambulance," equipped with a camera that beams audio and video so patients in the vehicle can be remotely observed, he said.

Many observers view UCSD as the ground-breaker of tomorrow's technology. "I think the idea behind the CyberShuttle is you can really revolutionize public transportation, so that people who have an hour-long commute in the morning can start answering e-mails," Shapiro said. "It might actually encourage people to take public transportation over driving."

Cheryl Meyer is a staff writer for The Daily Deal and is based in Orange County, Calif.

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