Potential and challenges of Bluetooth validation: Trentino and Sardinia compared

Bluetooth is now a prevalent technology in our daily life: every day we use it to listen to music, make hands-free calls from our car, use a wireless keyboard and mouse, sync the wristband that tracks our physical activity.

So why not use this technology to access public transport as well?

Those who use Bluetooth find it convenient because it works well and is invisible. Ultimately, it is a technology capable of truly improving our lives, simplifying many small daily activities.

Those who evaluate Bluetooth from a more technological point of view, appreciate – in addition to the increasing familiarity of the users – the technical capabilities in terms of stability, energy efficiency, latency and bandwidth capacity, as well as the almost obvious technological compatibility of any smartphone or tablet present on the market.

It is precisely with the “magic” of wireless communication that OpenMove has leveraged to launch, in 2022, two projects that clear the use of Bluetooth in the public transport sector, for the first time in Italy – and among the first in Europe – on a regional scale. In particular, the technology has been used to innovate the ticket validation process purchased from smartphones.

The two projects in question exploit two different technological approaches and, for this reason, it is interesting to compare them; the two territories affected by these two projects are also different, albeit equally amazing: Trentino and Sardinia.

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Make the most of existing hardware: the Bluetooth project in Trentino

Now let’s get into the merits of the Bluetooth validation project in the Autonomous Province of Trento.

The project consists, in addition to an Account Based ticketing system and a layer of MaaS Integration, of an app (called “OpenMove”) which can be downloaded free of charge from the Stores. This app is the OpenMove mobility platform tool that allows the ridership to travel by accessing a number of transport services.

The app, in Trentino, is used by more than 100,000 users and allows you to plan the intermodal journey taking advantage of the entire local public transport network in the province of Trento – including urban and suburban buses, cable cars and regional trains – browse timetables by line and stop and buy travel tickets with a single touch, then validating them when boarding the vehicle.

Validation via Bluetooth has been made available on over 700 vehicles operated by Trentino Trasporti and on top of existing methods, such as framing the QR code on board the vehicle or scanning NFC tags always present in the bus.

The new feature, thanks to Bluetooth technology, allows users’ smartphones to detect the vehicle they have boarded, making the user experience even more fluid. The interesting aspect of this project is that the Bluetooth signal necessary for validation is emitted by the control unit installed on board the vehicle itself. This signal can therefore contain information about the line and the route, which is data persistently present to the control unit itself which houses the AVM/AVL system of Trentino Trasporti.

The technological approach chosen in this case was to make the user’s smartphone communicate directly with the on-board hardware already present and therefore it was not necessary to install additional devices. This methodology makes for a particularly clever innovation, both for the transport operator and for users.

On the other hand, the approach in the project in the Autonomous Region of Sardinia was different.

The versatility of BLE beacons: the Bluetooth project in the Autonomous Region of Sardinia

In 2016, the Autonomous Region of Sardinia undertook a process of reviewing its tariff system with the aim of harmonizing the different modes of transport throughout the region.

The public tender issued in the summer of 2021 and awarded to OpenMove at the beginning of 2022 fits into this context: in its process of unifying the various transport systems, the Region has decided to adopt an Account Based ticketing system which allows public transport users to take advantage of a new sales channel, additional to those already operating in the area, for the purchase and usage of all travel tickets for buses, trains and metros present in the regional tariff catalog and in the one of the various transport companies present.

The new system aims to achieve an effective intermodality, overcoming the barriers and logics of competition between different transport companies operating in neighboring territories. The user is put at the center with all their needs and the aim is to offer a better service to citizens, who care about getting efficiently to their destination and without worry about whether their journey will involve one or more transport operators.

To achieve this level of intermodality, the chosen strategy was to build an ABT (Account Based Ticketing) system parallel to the pre-existing media-based electronic ticketing systems, in order to ensure scalability and rapid adoption.

The project featured the creation of a solution for end users equipped with a powerful intermodal journey planner, digital timetables, ticketing, one-tap payment and validation, all in the single app “Around Sardinia”.

To give users the possibility of quickly validating the purchased ticket and in the most effective way for everyone, it was decided to implement the reverse validation paradigm required by ISO/TR 20526 relating to Account Based Ticketing, putting in place 3 validation technologies available for travelers’ smartphones:

  • QR Code optical validation
  • NFC contactless validation
  • Bluetooth validation

Bluetooth validation featured the installation of self-powered BLE beacons on board vehicles and in public transport stops, set for the transmission of a unique identifier in advertising mode, using the iBeacon protocol. The validation data is therefore geolocated and this allows the reconstruction of the user’s position, functional to different tariff schemes and validation paradigms.

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Approaches to comparison

The two projects presented have in common the presence of the Account Based ticketing system implemented by OpenMove, which enables the mobile sales channel thanks to the power of the inversion of the validation paradigm suggested by ISO/TR 20526:2017. The ability to handle both scenarios within a mobility platform represents the state of the art in Automated Fare Collection as well as an important requirement to enable a MaaS project in a territory.

In addition to the more “traditional” validation methods (QR Code and NFC tags read by users’ smartphones) both projects have implemented Bluetooth validation yet with two different approaches:

  • in the case of Trentino, the Bluetooth signal for validation is emitted by the control units on board the vehicles;
  • In the case of Sardinia, the Bluetooth signal is generated by self-powered beacon devices installed on transport vehicles and at bus stops.

These are two different methodologies to achieve the same objectives: making life easier for those who use public transport, allow for faster boarding at the stop and improve data richness for the transport operator in order to feel the pulse of mobility flows in real time.

The use of control units on board the vehicles in Trentino was possible thanks to the presence of a single public transport operator and a substantial homogeneity of the on-board technologies; in Sardinia, since there are dozens of transport operators with different on-board technologies, it was necessary to resort to the installation of external devices in order to guarantee the same technological level on the entire transport offering.

The advantage of external devices is that they can be also positioned in the stops and not just on vehicles: this allows you to make Bluetooth contact even before the vehicle arrives at the stop, for passenger information purposes as well. On the other hand, an autonomous and self-powered device needs more maintenance (e.g. battery replacement) than the control unit of a vehicle which already falls under the ordinary maintenance of on-board systems.

Bluetooth validation through the vehicle control unit allows for an information “short-circuit” between the AVM/AVL and the ticketing system, in order to exchange data “on site”. This information, thanks to the very essence of an Account Based ticketing system, can still be exchanged via server-to-server communication between AVM and ABT.

In conclusion, not only are both approaches possible, but also a hybrid situation – where possible and if convenient – to leverage the hardware already present on board the vehicle (there exist already compatible AVMs, but you could also use – depending on the case – the validators or, in extreme cases, the driver smartphone) to generate the validation signal, and in the other cases, to install autonomous beacon devices with significantly low cost.

In all cases, the goal is always the same: to allow easy and intermodal access to mobility, just as it is seamless to get into the car and turn the ignition key. Bluetooth has the potential to shape the transport field only if it behaves and is adopted in similar fashion to many of our  other daily life scenarios: silently available and beneficial, which leaves more time and space for our lives linked by that ever growing thread called mobility.

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