Veniam Wants to Build a Smart City One WiFi Bus at a Time

What if municipal WiFi wasn’t provided by the Googles of the world, but by the city transit authority? Using technology from startup Veniam, city-wide WiFi could come from a fleet of moving vehicles.

Mountain View, CA-based Veniam on Monday is announcing a $4.9 million Series A round to fund its expansion in the U.S. The round was led by True Ventures in San Francisco and included money from New York City-based Union Square Ventures, Irvington, NY-based Cane Investments, and private investors.

It may seem unlikely that WiFi—a technology that’s designed to provide wireless access for a few hundred feet—could provide Internet access from moving vehicles, but Veniam is already doing it in Porto, Portugal, where 60,000 people per month get online using its distributed network.

The company hopes that with a critical mass of moving hotspots, complemented with stationary Internet connections and wireless carriers’ cellular network, it can provide the network backbone for smart cities. That network will provide the means to carry data not just for people but also millions of connected sensors that could monitor traffic, air quality, and infrastructure.

Veniam’s technology creates mesh networks using WiFi transmitters in vehicles. The technology, which came out of the lab of Veniam founder and CEO João Barros, ensures that connections are reliably and securely handed off from one hotspot to another.

The company now has two products: one aimed at fleet operators to provide WiFi from vehicles, and another to provide wireless Internet access in confined spaces. The latter technology is aimed at port operators, which can equip cranes, trucks, and containers with the company’s WiFi hardware to collect data on their operations.

By using moving WiFi hotspots, network providers can rely less on the cellular networks and save money. In Porto, Portugal—Barros’ home country—the bus authority has 600 buses equipped with Veniam’s hardware and the system can reduce cellular network access by 50 percent in highly trafficked areas. The company also installs a number of stationary WiFi hotspots in the city to get onto the Internet.

“We’re already offloading cellular traffic to a fixed infrastructure service to 60,000 people in Porto. That brings the whole free WiFi in moving vehicles to a different price point,” Barros says.

JBarros

Barros

Over time, the company hopes to increase density of moving hotspots—eventually extending it to cars—to further reduce use of the more expensive cellular network. Porto, for example, now has a fleet of garbage trucks using its system.

Among the company’s co-founders is entrepreneur Robin Chase, the founder and former CEO of Zipcar. An acquaintance connected Chase and Barros after seeing Barros give a presentation on moving WiFi because it matched precisely with Chase’s vision for city WiFi, which she spelled out in a 2007 TED talk. After meeting in Silicon Valley, Chase became a co-founder and the former CTO of Zipcar, Roy Russell, became Veniam’s CTO.

One of the obvious challenges with providing network access from moving vehicles is density: Without enough access points, it might not be significantly cheaper than using the cellular network access to the Internet. That could limit the technology’s application to smaller geographic areas.

Regardless of their commercial success, though, Veniam is working on an interesting technical problem—namely, what does the network for the Internet of things need to look like? People expect a Web page or app to load quickly, but data from a shipping container or garbage truck has a very different set of requirements.

“Things may be able to wait for data or send data later,” Barros says. “The time scales and data rates and bandwidth requirements are very different than people.”

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