Whether they know it or not, travellers in Paris are getting the benefit of an advanced wireless system, with Wi-Fi hotspots on buses and metro stations.

The system is not just remote access for commuters with laptops, but an integral part of the way the system is run: "With any wireless project, you should focus on operational efficiency," Jeolie Richert, project manager at RATP, the company which runs the French metro and buses, said, at the Wi-Fi business development summit in Milan. "Cost savings today are better than revenue tomorrow."

The RATP has 44,000 employees - and hundreds of them have Wi-Fi equipped PDAs, which can be used for a variety of jobs, from checking timetables, to reporting faults or incidents, to planning journeys for customers.

Stored and synched data
The applications on the PDA work offline, based on information stored, but they receive live updates about changes to the timetable or disruptions, as soon as the employee gets within wireless coverage. If wireless coverage is lost, it carries on working with the most recent data.

So, when a customer asks about a delayed train, or asks for an alternative route, the employee can check the PDA and give good answers. "Give an address, and the employee can tell you the nearest stop, and suggest routes there," said Xavier Aubry, vice president of EMEA operations at Appear Networks, which implemented the system.

"There are nine million journeys per day on RATP services," says Aubrey. "You can't Google that information quickly enough." The travel planner gets results quickly enough to avoid frustrations.

Security alerts - the killer app
Possibly more importantly, the PDA can also issue a silent alert, and stream video images from the scene of an incident. "This is the killer application for Wi-Fi," said Aubry. "You can take a picture, and send it with an alert, including your ID and your location to within 2m." The application does not replace other tools like walki-talkies, he said. Indeed, images from the PDA can be correlated with CCTV to give a fuller picture of an incident in real time.

The system was first implemented in the giant La Defense metro station, based on Cisco equipment. Mobile access routers have also been placed in Paris buses, to create hotspots inside the bus. These use GPRS for an uplink, or Wi-Fi when they are at a hotspot.

In the bus, the system is used to keep staff PDAs updated, as well as to give information to the passengers. The bus, which also has a GPS locator of course, has a screen displaying information about connecting buses, about disruptions, and local streetmaps.

Lessons to be learnt
"We've seen a lot of Wi-Fi projects fail," says Richert. She and Aubry believe the RATP's success will have lessons for other people.

  • Firstly, says Richert, the focus must be on economic benefits that are tangible. Providing access that might draw in more business, and boost profits in a year or two, is just too intangible.
  • The cost of ownership should also be kept in view. "The total cost can rise if you don't watch out," says Aubry. "The devices might cost €300, but the total cost can be €4000 per user per year."
  • The system should be flexible. Open standards that work with multiple handsets are important, they point out. Being tied to just one kind of device would be too restrictive for a system which will be accessed by engineers, safety inspectors, customer service staff, and many more
  • "You need employee co-operation and satisfaction," says Richert. If the staff can't use it, or won't use it, there is no impact. The RATP spent a lot of effort on the user interface, working with ergonomists and others, she says, to make sure the system would work - and do something that would actually help the employee do the job.

So, next time you pass through La Defense, or take a bus in Paris, look out for staff with PDAs. It could be that Wi-Fi is making your journey smoother.