IoT Blog

How to Use Captive Portals for Passenger Wi-Fi in Transit Vehicles

AirLink, Public Transit, Routers

Greg Dunn

Greg Dunn

Senior Product Manager


Public buses, trains, and coaches are no longer confined spaces where passengers are unable to remain connected to the digital world. Today, more and more transit companies are offering passenger Wi-Fi capabilities, allowing their customers to access the internet, work remotely, or simply stream their favorite shows while on-the-go.  However, providing public Wi-Fi comes with its own set of challenges.

Captive portals can be an effective solution to help manage passenger access while also providing valuable insights into passenger usage habits.  In this blog, we will explore the different types of captive portals, their respective benefits and how they can be deployed effectively in a transit vehicle.

What is a Captive Portal?

A Captive Portal is a system that requires passengers to complete a login process or agree to the terms of use before granting them access to the internet. There are two types of captive portals supported by Sierra Wireless router solutions today:

  • Simple Captive Portals: These are typically utilized by transit agencies seeking a cost-effective method to present their Wi-Fi terms and conditions to passengers. It allows them to upload a custom-branded splash page that is displayed to Wi-Fi users before they're granted internet access. This strategy is simple, easy to configure, and avoids the cost of third-party solutions.
  • Extended Captive Portals: These are more advanced solutions that rely on third party providers such as Hotspotsystem or Picopoint. These solutions enable transit agencies to manage and control individual access and/or collect user information. The login page ensures that only authorized users can access the internet. It involves a user entering a username and password into the captive portal that is then authenticated with an authentication server by the router. Once authenticated, the user will be given access to the Wi-Fi network.

Benefits of Simple and Extended Captive Portals

A simple captive portal is a cost-effective solution that yields two main benefits for transit agencies:

  • Data Protection Compliance: Transit operators must comply with various data privacy regulations, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union or the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in the United States. By accepting terms of service, passengers confirm that they are aware of the type of data that is being collected and how it will be used, which is a key requirement of many data protection regulations.
  • Branding and Promotional content: The splash page can be customized as required to reflect the organization’s corporate branding and to share promotional content.

Extended captive portals require additional costs, but yield added security and marketing benefits:

  • Authentication and access control simplifies the process of granting access to authorized users, ensuring only those who have permission can connect to the network.
  • Extended captive portals can be used to collect information such as email addresses, zip codes, and content preferences that can help with marketing personalization and service improvements.
  • Extended captive portals can be configured to limit user access based on various factors, such as:
    • Time: restricting access to a specific duration after which the user must re-authenticate.
    • Data usage: Setting a cap on the amount of data each user can consume during their session, helping to manage network resources.
    • Bandwidth: Implementing bandwidth throttling to prevent individual users from consuming excessive bandwidth and negatively impacting the experience for other passengers.

How to Deploy Captive Portal in a Bus

You don't have to be a tech wizard to set up a captive portal Wi-Fi solution - simply select a cellular router that already offers flexible captive portal solutions.

In-vehicle cellular routers supporting captive portal have numerous additional benefits that make them essential for anyone who relies on connectivity while on the go. These routers are designed to provide secure and reliable internet access that can meet the needs of multiple users. When selecting an in-vehicle router you should ask the following key questions:

  • Is it purpose-built for in-vehicle use? Transit vehicles often operate in harsh environments, with extreme temperatures, vibrations, dust, and extreme transient surges. Look for devices with robust enclosures, industrial-grade components, built-in transient protection, and certifications such as MIL-STD-810G or IP64, like Sierra Wireless’ AirLink XR90 5G multi-network vehicle router.
  • Does it support MU-MIMO Wi-Fi 6? Wi-Fi 6 (also known as 802.11 ax) was launched in 2019 as a replacement for Wi-Fi 5. While Wi-Fi 6 delivers a 25 percent increase in basic data transmission, the real communications gain for captive portal use cases is through multi-user, multiple input, and multiple output functionality, also known as MU-MIMO. This allows a single router to communicate with multiple devices at the same time. This significantly increases throughput and reduces latency as devices have much shorter wait times to transmit and receive data. Learn more here: How MU-MIMO Enhances Connectivity for Public Safety, Transit and Industry
  • Can it separate passenger traffic from operational traffic? Transit operators need to ensure that passenger Wi-Fi traffic does not interfere with mission-critical operational traffic, such as surveillance systems or real-time vehicle diagnostics. Network segmentation and isolation can be achieved by using a router that has two independent Wi-Fi radios and by creating separate local area networks (LANs) for passengers and operational devices. The passenger Wi-Fi traffic may be steered to a dedicated cellular link or access point name (APN). The second Wi-Fi radio is used to connect the critical onboard systems that need always-on, real-time connectivity -such as the fare payment system- to operational servers.
  • Can it support flexible routing policies to ensure always-on connectivity? Merely having speed is not enough to ensure superior Wi-Fi quality. Dependability is a critical factor in enhancing passenger satisfaction. Transit agencies need to consider solutions that are not only capable of segregating passenger and internal Wi-Fi traffic into distinct networks, but that can also use events to change decision making. This functionality enables the smooth and automatic redirection of your passenger Wi-Fi traffic to an alternate link when necessary, such as instances of reduced signal strength or when the bus nears the depot.

How Sierra Wireless Supports Captive Portal Deployments in Transit Applications

Sierra Wireless offers a family of 5G wireless multi-network vehicle routers including the  AirLink® XR80 and XR90 that support both captive portal options: simple captive portal and extended captive portals.

The AirLink XR80 and XR90 are designed from the ground up to deliver the highest performance 5G, Wi-Fi 6 and gigabit Ethernet connectivity. With built-in simple captive portal support, transit agencies can easily upload a customized and branded splash page package without any additional cost. The install can be done locally through the router, or remotely from a remote management service.

Agencies wanting to manage access rights and/or collect user information can also use the XR series to seamlessly integrate their CoovaChilli-based third party solution for extended captive portal.

With multi-APN support, dual independent 4X4 MU-MIMO Wi-Fi 6 radio, support of twelve data streams and up to 256 concurrent users, the AirLink XR90 is particularly suited to transit companies looking to provide passenger Wi-Fi through a captive portal.

To provide additional flexibility, the XR90 can intelligently switch Wi-Fi WAN between 2.4GHz and 5 GHz bands while presenting the same IP and MAC address to the network for depot Wi-Fi applications.    

Connect with our IoT expert to learn more on how you can leverage Captive Portal in your transit vehicles.

Sierra Wireless and AirLInk are registered trademarks or service marks of Semtech Corporation or its subsidiaries.

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