Tag Archives: travel

Amtrak hasn’t punched out yet

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Tools of the trade.

Score a win for AT&T. On recent train trip through California, I confirmed that Amtrak is indeed using a wireless bar code scanner to manage passengers, even if conductors haven’t given up their ancient badge of office, the ticket punch.

Confronted by a confused passenger who was certain he’d purchased an e-ticket but didn’t know quite what that meant, the conductor smiled and whipped out his new smart phone-sized gizmo. A couple of taps and he found the ticket.

“I love these things,” he said to no one in particular.

Turning to the next passenger, who had a genuine paper ticket, he pulled his punch off his belt and kept right on moving.

With happy passengers and crew and more room than a first class airline seat, an Amtrak trip up the California coast and through hidden hills and valleys is pure heaven. OK, so WiFi access isn’t universal yet and there are mobile broadband gaps. Who cares, when you have a stunning sunset and $5 cocktails in the club car?

Handheld computers help keep everyone smiling. But traditions die hard on the railroad, so I expect conductors will still carry ticket punches and skeleton keys a hundred years from now.

Mark Twain would feel right at home:

Conductor, when you receive a fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,
A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,
A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

Chorus:
Punch brothers! Punch with care! Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

Not much difference between airline passengers and a bag of potatoes

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This is your captain speaking.

Good news from Boeing, just in time for the holiday flying madness. With the growing popularity of on-board WiFi, engineers there needed to figure out how it propagates in an airline cabin.

There’s no mathematical model for predicting what happens to WiFi signals when you have a few hundred people packed together inside of a metal tube. So they came up with a testing protocol.

Boeing is proud of the fact that it only requires about ten hours to complete the series of tests. That’s a lot faster than the two weeks they thought it would take. But it’s still a lot longer than they thought real people would want to spend sitting on a plane going nowhere (they should pass that amazing conclusion on to Delta). So they improvised…

The team determined that potatoes were ideal stand-ins for passengers, given their similar physical interactions with electronic signal properties. Much of the testing was conducted on the grounded airplane with the seats filled with 20,000 pounds of potato sacks.

Judging from the video of the test, the potatoes were as helpful as the average frequent flier and no less attractive.

The testing should help airlines and regulators better deal with the twenty-first century. Right now, you’re required to power down any device that has an on-off switch before take off, even if you do spend the next several hours sitting on the ground like a sack of spuds with nothing to read except the airline magazine, assuming it’s still in the seat pocket and the pages aren’t stuck together.

Would you like fries with that?

Mobile communications and government: be careful what you ask for, because you might get it

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Some gems sparkled this afternoon in what otherwise was an unfocused chat. The topic was supposed to be mobile technology adoption by government agencies but instead skidded toward canned talking points from lobbyists.

Some panelists got it right, though. Eric Engleman, senior policy advisor for energy and innovation in the San Diego mayor’s office, zeroed in on two key policy areas that will determine the path government agencies will take regarding mobile applications and devices: open data policies and the development and integration of open source, interoperable software.

Open (or otherwise) data policies determine what, if any, restrictions are placed on data generated and collected by government agencies. In theory, open data policies assume that if information is held by a government agency then it’s in the public domain and should be easily accessible by anyone who might be curious. And easily accessible means online, searchable and organized in a way that quickly presents complete answers, even if the component parts of those answers lie in different departments or agencies.

Local governments are developing open source applications to solve specific problems, such as business permit processing, pot hole patching and data base management. Sometimes, as in Santa Cruz, it’s in cooperation with a foundation like Code for America that was specifically designed to address these opportunities.

One approach San Diego is taking is holding a App Challenge. Organized by the mayor’s office and sponsored by AT&T, the contest offered a prize purse of $50,000 and attracted 78 mobile application entries, ranging from a dog park locator to an end to end earthquake preparedness app to a public transit platform.

AT&T’s Stacey Black, a market development and external affairs executive, talked about the same issue, but saw it as an opportunity for companies that can develop vertical solutions for specific problems. Like Engleman, he thinks the future means fewer fat, proprietary applications that any organization might use (think: Microsoft Word) and thinner, focused apps that solve specific problems.

His example was a wireless bar code scanner that AT&T implemented for Amtrak, adapting it to the railroad’s peculiar operating practices. The result, he said, was that Amtrak was finally able to replace the venerable ticket punches that had been in use for a century and a half or more.

The rest of the panel was less on point, albeit no less entertaining in some regards. A Sprint lobbyist wants government subsidies for devices students can take home because, he says, most learning happens after 7 p.m. I’d like to see the research behind that statement – the logical conclusion would be that we should give every child an iPad and a mobile data account and close down the schools. Let me know that works out for you.

The T-Mobile lobbyist reminded everyone that they need more cell tower sites. Another T-Mobile lobbyist in the audience helpfully repeated the point.

A gentleman from USC, who was appearing on behalf of the U.S. State Department, had some fascinating things to say about the use of social media in revolutionary times and the efforts – successful, largely – of government like Iran that aggressively censor mobile, Internet and other communication media. It wasn’t what the MobileCon moderators had in mind, I’d bet, when they organized the panel. But it was a graphic illustration of, as the panel title promised, successfully “leveraging mobile communications to help agencies meet their missions.”

3G networks reach deep into Australia and New Zealand

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Travelling through New Zealand and Australia with a smart phone or iPad is painless and relatively inexpensive for a traveller. Three national mobile networks – Telstra, Optus and Vodafone – cover Australia. Optus also markets service under the Virgin Mobile brand. In New Zealand, it’s Telecom NZ and Vodafone, with newcomer 2degrees building out its network.

My assessment of actual coverage is subjective. I used Vodafone in both countries, and Telstra in Australia. Vodafone NZ and Telstra do a very good job of covering the areas I visited: long swathes of both North and South Islands in New Zealand, and Melbourne, Adelaide and the countryside in between in Australia. Vodafone Australia’s coverage is less comprehensive. I occasionally checked on Optus’ and Telecom NZ’s availability, and could not see any significant difference between their coverage and that of Telstra and Vodafone NZ, respectively.

All four companies market their services through their own stores and resellers, and do a good job of reaching out to travellers with iPads and unlocked GSM/3G phones. I have a long standing pre-paid account with Vodafone NZ that lets me use its Australian sister network on the same terms. Just topping up once a year keeps my phone number active.

Getting a microsim for my iPad from Telstra took longer than it should have – I spent about 45 minutes in a Melbourne store going through the bureaucratic steps necessary for setting up an account, and the other three carriers appear to have similar procedures. It’s a far cry from Vodafone’s UK operation. Travellers there can pop a credit card into an airport vending machine and, for £10, get a microsim and 250 MB of data.

Costs are very reasonable. In Australia, Telstra, Vodafone and Optus all offered a microsim with 3 GB of data for A$30. Published prices are different but, judging from discussions with store staff, all three aggressively meet or beat each other’s special deals on the street. There are a few Virgin Mobile brand stores as well, and they’re aiming at more even more cost conscious buyers: a A$5 microsim comes with 300 MB of data. Avoid a couple of hotel or WiFi hotspot day use charges and it’s paid for itself. In New Zealand, microsim costs range between NZ$20 to NZ$50 for up to 3 GB of data.

New Zealand and Australia have always bee very pleasant places to do business. Ubiquitous, fast and cheap mobile broadband coverage makes it very easy, too.