Technology Innovation leads to Secure Wi-Fi on the UI Ride Shuttle Service

Through a collaboration with Technology Services at Illinois, Facilities & Services, and the University of Illinois System Offices, the new UI Ride Shuttle Service provides free, secure wireless connection for university professionals traveling from Urbana to Chicago.

5 adults in front of UI Ride Shuttle bus
President Killeen and company complete the first trip on the UI Ride Shuttle Service from Urbana to Chicago on October 31, 2019. (From the left: Karen Greenwalt, Tim Killeen, Laura Clower, Dr. Mohamed Attalla, Brad Trankina)

The University of Illinois System UI Ride Shuttle Service launched its first rides on October 31, 2019 after much anticipation. The buses are designed with the traveling University of Illinois professional in mind. They feature comfortable seats (reserved ahead of time, like an airline), equipment and space to support laptops and tablets, a collaborative workspace, a spacious bathroom, a changing room and, perhaps most notably, free Wi-Fi.

More specifically, the shuttles are equipped with the same IllinoisNet Wi-Fi experience as riders would have while on campus. Through a collaboration between Technology Services and Facilities & Services, faculty, staff, and students traveling between the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Illinois at Chicago can make the three-hour commute while answering emails, completing training videos, or connecting with co-workers. Efficiency at its best.

Though Wi-Fi on mass transit is not a novel idea, having a secure network that connects directly to campus and allows access to all applications without a virtual private network (VPN), is new. 

The Wi-Fi and software aspects of the project were overseen by Brad Trankina, Associate Director of Information Technology Services at Facilities & Services.

“To accompany the new shuttle service, an online reservation system is an important part of the experience,” explains Trankina. “The online reservation system that went live October 21 offers passengers an easy way to reserve seats, with a user-friendly interface.” A mobile application will allow for even easier access to reservations, and will launch in the next few weeks.

At the start of the Wi-Fi project, the goals were lofty for a high-quality experience, and an affordable technology solution that checked all the boxes did not exist at the time. So, Trankina reached out to Technology Services’ Networking and Innovation teams to brainstorm.

“Brad approached us last spring with this problem and asked if there was any way to make this happen,” says Uros Marjanovic, Senior Network Engineer at Technology Services. “We realized we already had the technology to set up remote secure connections, but we had never tried it with something that moves!”

Each bus is equipped with what the networking group calls a “BOC in a Box” kit, or simply, “Bob.” The team installed a Branch Office Controller (BOC) on each bus, the same technology they plan to use for remote buildings like Illini Plaza in Champaign, Illini Center in Chicago, and the Vet Med facility at the Brookfield Zoo. The staff at these locations work in facilities belonging to other organizations, but they still need access to IllinoisNet daily to do their jobs for the university.

The kit also includes a Cradlepoint router and an Aruba access point. These connect to the BOC and convert cell phone signals to establish a secure network connection to campus. The Wireless Networking team worked diligently to upgrade code this summer so that wireless access points across campus would provide a more seamless connection from building to building. This substantial campus technology improvement, enables the buses to provide the same, enhanced customer experience for Wi-Fi. Once the upgrade was complete, the team worked on the UI Ride project to ensure that load times and performance would meet client needs on the moving shuttles.

The public launch events for the UI Ride shuttle service took place on October 3 in Urbana and October 4 in Chicago. Susan Martinis, the Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Illinois, gave remarks and introduced President Tim Killeen at the Urbana kickoff event. Killeen emphasized the opportunity to establish and encourage inter-campus connection and collaboration.

Martinis discussed how the collaboration with the University of Illinois System and the new Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) will play a huge role in the use of the new buses.

“People show up to a meeting at DPI or at one of the Chicago facilities, and realize that there were others they could have carpooled with from Champaign-Urbana,” Martinis said. Sitting in a car unable to communicate or connect and staying alert and refreshed are some of the challenges Martinis hopes the shuttle service will solve.

Antoinette Burton, the Director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH), and a big proponent of the service since its inception, was also present at the event.

Amenities on UI Ride

The inaugural rides took place on October 31. “Our riders tested the Wi-Fi and attempted some large file downloads during this ride,” says Trankina. “President Killeen was impressed with the speed.”

One of the most promising aspects of this innovative project, however, might be the future implications for this technology. The Wireless Networking team presented the bus project and the “Bob” kit to the Big Ten Network Directors and WiFi Group/IT Networking Group in October.

“This technology can be used in many other situations – think pop up events, or something out in the middle of a cornfield,” suggests Marjanovic. “Traditional fiber can be expensive and time-consuming for a researcher who might need a solid and secure wireless connection for work while in the field. This technology could be a viable solution.”

For now, the UI Ride shuttle service makes three round trips daily from the Urbana campus to the University of Illinois at Chicago. It also makes stops at the new Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) facility in downtown Chicago.

Crowd sitting at presentation outside in front of UI Ride Shuttle Bus
Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation, Dr. Susan Martinis, addresses the crowd at the UI Ride Open House Launch event on October 3, 2019 in Urbana