Wi-Fi’s Big, Green Adventure

Last week, 15 Dartmouth College students climbed into a solar-paneled, waste-vegetable-fueled bus complete with “green” Wi-Fi to head off on a summer road trip with a mission.

On June 17th, The Big Green Bus, sponsored in part by Newman’s Own, the charitable food company founded by Paul Newman and author A.E. Hotchner, made the first stop on its 12,000-mile quest to “diminish a variety of environmental and economic issues through education” in New York City. There, the team of co-eds unveiled their state-of-the-art earth-friendly mobile classroom and offered two hours of hands-on educational experiences and one-on-one conversations to the public.

“Each Big Green Bus mile will be powered not only by vegetable oil but by the students’ passion. We commend them for their innovative, grass-roots approach to environmental education and are proud to support them on their journey,” said Newman’s Own VP of marketing, Mike Havard, in a statement June 16th.

Love your mother

The renewable-energy-powered Wi-Fi on the tricked out coach bus is essential to the student’s project, says Kawakahi Amina, PR Coordinator for the Big Green Bus Summer Tour ’09.

The goal of the students’ 40-state, cross-country journey is to deliver messages pertinent to five key areas, including: reduction of consumption and recycling; energy efficiency; clean and renewable energy; wise food choices; and personal actions through voting. The Green Bus team uses its Wi-Fi to interact in real time with the public and to file regular updates from the road, including blogs, podcasts, photo galleries, videos, Tweets, and action opportunitiesDC_BigGreenBus_sm.JPG

MiFi it is

The Big Green Bus is using a Verizon Wireless MiFi 3G mobile hotspot for its Wi-Fi. [Read our review here.] The MiFi, first announced by Novatel Wireless in December of 2008, finally became available to consumers this spring—just in time for the Big Green Bussers to hop on board the portable technology that allows up to five people to be connected at a time while on the road to, in this case, via Verizon’s 3G network.

“In previous years, we’ve had a 3G dongle that would connect via USB to one computer and then would turn the entire computer into a hotspot, but the problem was that it was constantly tied up to one computer and that computer always had to be on/present,” says  Amina. “We’ve looked into getting a dedicated router for the bus, but we realized quickly that for mobility sake, the MiFi is a lot easier for mobile computing since it can be taken from the bus and located with the crew elsewhere. In terms of security, we have a standard user/password system set up in addition to the CDMA authentication and identification system built into the hotspot.”

After four days on the road with it, Amina says the connectivity has been great, particularly in urban areas, such as D.C. and New York. 

Power to the people

For the most part, the Wi-Fi is powered, like everything else on the bus, by solar energy. “Depending on the day/area, we have about three to four people using wireless during our long drives, since the bus is equipped with normal household outlets that draw power from the solar panels located on the top of the bus. Our extensive battery bank system below the bus, which is charged by the solar panels, allows us to also run completely off the grid for two days and powers our laptops, refrigerator, HDTV, interior track lighting, and other AC-powered units,” says Amina.

While on the road, the team keeps its hotspot plugged into an electrical outlet, but when the team gets off the bus, the MiFi gets passed to the general manager, public relations manager, or logistics team so that they can continue their updates from a café or non-Wi-Fi-equipped location.  


“An interesting thing I’ve noticed is that more and more shops that have previously offered [free] Wi-Fi seem to be charging for it nowadays. The MiFi permits us to basically bring the Internet with us whenever we want, independent of the physical bus,” says Amina.

Having Wi-Fi on the bus also allows the team to complete a significant amount of logistical and prep work between their stops in cities, as well as to stay connected to friends and family. “While phone calls are nice, they really don’t convey the real message as a complete e-mail or photo can. Thus, being connected to the Internet allows us to blog, post galleries, and update Twitter very easily. It also allows the crew to stay in touch with friends and family on the road when normally the four- to five-hour drives could only be spent sleeping or reading. Wi-Fi is great because it makes us efficient, educated, and connected,” says Amina.

Are we there yet?

The Big Green Bus is a non-profit, student-run, and student-organized project from Ivy League university, Dartmouth College, which is located in Hanover, NH. This is the fifth year (and third Green Bus) in which Dartmouth students have made the coast-to-coast trip in pursuit of their dream “to educate the American public about how small, individual actions can have a huge impact in reducing consumption and increasing energy efficiency,” says Amina. “The 15 students this year, including myself, have organized, designed, built, and will drive the bus from city to city (41 in total) to show off the bus as a ‘mobile green classroom’ showcasing emerging green technologies and practices.”bus_sm.JPG

This week, the Bus made its way from Durham, NC to Atlanta, GA. The team will continue to navigate westward along the southern portion of the country, then up to San Francisco where they will turn eastward again, hitting Telluride, CO, Madison, WI, and Philadelphia, PA (among many other stops) on their way back to Hanover.

“On the bus we have this joke that the three things any college kid needs is food, a pillow, and the Internet, and to many extents this is completely true,” says Amina. “We live in a day and age where connectivity means the difference between missing a meeting and making it, or finding a city street when driving or being completely lost. In terms of a grassroots project, such as the Big Green Bus, we have to always be available through e-mail or phone, if we are going to inform individuals without the help of commercialized mass media. I think our greatest strength and asset as a platform for education is our ability to be flexible and easily adaptable, such that unexpected situations can be dealt with without serious overhead. Also, at the end of the day we’re all still college kids and our resilience and curiosity allows us to employ the use of any new technology to both inform and have a ton of fun along the way.”

You can follow The Big Green Bus on its summer tour at www.changents.com/biggreenbus and on Twitter (@thebiggreenbus). Read our review of the MiFi here; and find more stories about solar-powered Wi-Fi here.

Images courtesy of The Big Green Bus.

Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at Wi-Fi Planet. She reduces, reuses, recycles in Western Massachusetts. You can follow her on Twitter (@WiFiPlanet).

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