The smartest city - free Wi-Fi on the Dubai Metro12 September 2016
These days, we can’t bear to be away from our phones for very long, particularly when commuting to and from work. The implementation of free Wi-Fi on board the Dubai Metro has set a high standard for other networks in the UAE to beat, but will it catch on elsewhere? Sophie Peacock speaks to Dr Spencer Dando from Du to find out.
Visitors to the Smart Dubai website are quickly greeted by the initiative’s promise to “make Dubai the happiest city on Earth”. If that sounds ambitious, the subsequent statement that technology will “play the role of enabler, rather than [being] the principal goal” is already noticeable in developments such as the free Wi-Fi on board Dubai Metro’s system. Not only has this answered the demand for more high-tech public transportation in the region, it has also proved an extremely valuable tool in gathering consumer data and improving ease of travel in Dubai. In order to generate happiness, you first have to be able to measure it.
Several UAE initiatives, such as the Smart Dubai scheme, have sprung up in recent years, with the aim of turning Dubai from a smart city into ‘the smartest city’. Lead by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Smart Dubai builds on a legacy of programmes developed by the Dubai Government to drive global competitiveness and improve connectivity in the UAE.
The metro’s Wi-Fi service was largely the result of a combined effort between three tech companies: Icomera, an established provider of internet solutions to transport networks; Du, one of the biggest telecoms companies in the UAE; and Nomad Digital, a leading global provider of connected passenger solutions for the rail industry.
Meet the players
“The metro system was designed as a service to get people to use public transport – it prioritised cost-effectiveness but also used Wi-Fi as an incentive for customers,” says Dr Spence Dando, director of Wi-Fi at Du.
But the journey is far from over. By using data analytics and mapping trends in consumer use, Du is looking to optimise Dubai’s public transportation on a larger scale. As well as working on a plan to upgrade the servers to accommodate the huge demand on bandwidth, Du will collaborate with the transport operators to optimise the way the metro connects with other means of travel.
“If we provide a bigger picture on network use – where users connect to an access point, for example – we can show the train operator where people are arriving from or where they tend to get off,” explains Dando. “This is helping with future planning for other metro systems as well as bus routes, and alternative services that interconnect and support the metro. So the devices people carry help us to plan ahead.”
Dando’s research found that users of the metro tend to own several smart devices and expect to be able to fit their online lives around their physical ones. These days, no one should have to wait until they emerge at their final destination to send an email.
“People have never been able to schedule their day around the metro before,” Dando says. “We knew that once we provided that possibility, that they would suddenly realise that they could do things that were previously unavailable. Today, transport is not an experience of standing still for 20 minutes doing nothing. People expect to have information and be connected.”
Over and under
Overground trains are more suitable for what Dando calls “the laptop brigade”; sockets and desk space are provided for passengers who need to work ‘on the go’. The more compact nature of the metro is suited to smartphone users, who may not be setting up a portable office but still need seamless connectivity, for however long or short their time underground may be. The cultural shift towards almost constant connectivity means commuters expect working internet access almost as much as they expect functioning lights and doors.
The Wi-Fi access itself is built on a ‘freemium’ model: passengers can use a free connection with a speed cap of 512KB, or purchase a ‘bundle’ for heavier internet use. “The majority of our customers use the free Wi-Fi service, which is perfect if you don’t want to do much else but use social media, send emails and browse the web on the move,” says Dando. “It’s not really designed for sitting there streaming movies or downloading large files.”
Users enter their phone number on the Wi-Fi splash page and receive an SMS containing a password that they then enter to get online. After every hour of use, the user will need to reauthenticate by entering a password again.
“The idea behind that is you don’t have people sitting on the network for ten hours consuming a lot of bandwidth and making the service worse for other people. But you can reconnect an infinite number of times every day,” explains Dando.
Although telecoms operators have their own apps that can connect to Du’s personal servers, plans are in place for Du to launch its own Wi-Fi-specific app for the metro’s Wi-Fi system, which would allow passengers to view train times, buy tickets, and search for locations and routes. By putting this control into the hands and mobile device of the passenger, the metro experience becomes almost entirely automated, and a greater potential for gathering and using customer data emerges.
“Part of the initiative is to put the many services that people would use manually into a digital platform,” Dando continues. “The exciting thing is actually the information we can get to help plan the network. Providing more files and consumer servers that people can enjoy on the train means we can have a wider understanding of our passengers’ needs.”
Come on, get happy
Understanding passenger needs is part of Smart Dubai’s ‘Happiness Meter’ – a daily distribution of reports to decision-makers that allows them to gauge the types of government services that citizens are most happy about. This data is used to develop customer service, and optimise the day-to-day experiences of those working and living in Dubai.
But in terms of the metro, does putting so much control in the hands of the passenger and their device raise potential security issues? Dando is confident it does not, and that the system Du has put in place has been carefully structured to protect the privacy of Wi-Fi customers. Users can also contact a customer service desk to troubleshoot any Wi-Fi issues they experience.
“By authenticating through SMS and sending their password, users can be verified and we can see that they’re in this country,” says Dando. “And the way the architecture of the system works is that one user cannot ‘see’ anyone else connected to the same access point. So all the customer data is centrally managed – each user connects directly to the gateway and any local connections have been blocked in the IT design.”
In partnership with the Smart Dubai scheme, the ‘Wi-Fi UAE’ initiative aims to provide country-wide Wi-Fi access to the public – it will have to collaborate with new public transport systems across the country, in order to make full use of lessons learned from the metro’s success.
“It’s definitely catching on,” declares Dando. “If I look at the Middle East region where we’re based, nearly every one of the major cities has plans for, or is building, a metro system. People expect Wi-Fi to be available, especially in a modern city. So we’re fortunate that in this region most of the public transport and railway networks are very new.”
Though its name may strike a rather corny chord, Dubai’s ‘Happiness Meter’ promises careful consideration between customer feedback and government initiatives. As Dando’s work with the Dubai Metro has shown, this can lead to the creation of successful ‘smart’ services; if these inspire other regions and networks to carry out similar schemes, the city is surely on the right track.