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WiFi Rail gets a nod from the Bay Area Rapid Transportation (BART) authority's board: The board of the giant SF bay people mover has given a kind of tacit go-ahead for negotiations with WiFi Rail, a company that has been testing a unique form of delivering Wi-Fi using coaxial cable as antenna extensions. Cooper Lee, founder and CEO, told me that the approval lets them focus on nailing down a contract with the authority, which he believes should take just a couple of weeks, as WiFi Rail is eating the costs of the project.
While this may sound familiar to those following municipal Wi-Fi, this deal is substantially different: it's much more like unwiring an airport than a city, and thus the expense in unwiring should be quickly outweighed by the uptake by passengers. City-wide Wi-Fi promised 1 to 4 Mbps in most cases; WiFi Rail has tested out at 10s of Mbps--their technology turns rail segments into wireless LANs with excellent reception. They terminate with fiber all over, so aggregation and backhaul isn't an issue. And unlike an airport, where travelers might turn to 3G cell data, those solutions don't work in the underground portions of BART and many other places along the rights of way due to obstructions.
And this isn't a "we have a great idea, let us build it" scenario. WiFi Rail has had test projects running for nearly a year, with a segment in San Francisco active for part of that time, and those tests determined the board's interest in proceeding. WiFi Rail told IDG News Service that 9,000 people have signed up for the current system and used 42,000 sessions.
WiFi Rail's network is currently free, and charges won't commence until the first stage is done. Lee said that fees, which will be about a dollar a day with subscriber discounts but are part of the negotiation with BART, will be charged at a 50-percent rate after the first phase is done until the whole network is complete. IDG notes that the company will be required to resell access at wholesale rates, and I expect aggregators like iPass (based in the Bay Area) and Boingo (further south in Santa Monica) will leap at reselling BART service, just as they do ferry-Fi here in the greater Puget Sound region.
The first route to be unwired will run from Balboa Park in San Francisco to two ends of a Y in Oakland, Lake Merritt and 19th St (see system map). For the 180,000 regular business commuters of the system, of which WiFi Rail wants to achieve an initial 20-percent uptake among, continuous Wi-Fi service should be a godsend against boredom and overwork. Yes, I know, for some, it will mean more expectation of work, but for others, it's a way to be mildly productive while en route, avoiding longer hours in the office or more work at home.
I need to go ride the ferries here during rush hour to talk to commuters and see what usage is likely on BART. There are tens of thousands of regular ferry commuters with an average 30-minute crossing as part of a longer (45 to 90 minute) trip each way into Seattle and other communities. It's a reasonable comparison with BART both in scale and nature of passengers.
What say you, Californian BART riders? Do you look forward to iPod touch, iPhone, BlackBerry (with Wi-Fi), and laptop connectivity? Or do you want to stay unplugged?
Pepwave offers up a Wi-Fi bridge intended for vehicles: The several models of Pepwave CarFi--sounds like they're borrowing my mode of naming Wi-Fi market segments--have no backhaul, like a cell router. Rather, they're designed to hook into wide-area Wi-Fi networks, providing consistent relayed service in a car or bus as it moves about a coverage area. The models are designed for mounting and use a standard 12-volt power supply and external antenna. Three 2.4 GHz models come in 100 mW, 200 mW, and 400 mW versions; there's also a single 802.11a/5 GHz model.
Pepwave Mobility can keep an active Wi-Fi connection at up to 75 mph, the company says: The device is the first mobile router I'm aware of that's designed as a separate product, rather than as part of an integrated package that includes propriety elements and often installation and maintenance. They have no per se competitor that I'm aware of for this segment. The company plans to sell the unit to service providers and others starting at $495 for a 100 mW radio (European market), with higher prices for 200 mW and 400 mW radios (U.S.).
Enabling mobile communications in commuter vehicles was supposed to be one of the ancillary benefits of city-wide wireless networks, but it's been mostly ignored. Most commuter-based Internet access over Wi-Fi uses satellite or cellular backhaul.
Google ferries folks all over the Bay Area on swank, uncrowded buses that relay in cell data signals for Wi-Fi access; Microsoft joins in around Seattle: Microsoft, the laggard on search, Web 2.0 applications, and many other areas (but don't let that fool you--remember "The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken") now joins Google and other firms in providing shuttle buses for employees to reduce their commuting time in the greater Seattle area, and, more importantly, increase their viable working hours. Todd Bishop of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports from a briefing this morning that Microsoft will start with as many as 1,000 employees later this month on buses that also include Internet access.
Microsoft has long been a leader in commuter programs, which has made it doubly strange during a period of slack stock growth and employee-filching by other firms that they didn't up the most useful of all things in their workers' lives: time. I live right near the western end of State Route 520, the floating bridge that goes straight to Microsoft's various Redmond offices, and I know plenty of 'Softies who live in my neighborhood and further west. Adding commuter-Fi--along with electrical outlets at each seat--ensures happier employees and more productive hours. There are no dedicated bus lanes on 520, but there are HOV lanes heading west for several miles east of the bridge. That means that afternoon return commuters to Seattle could see 20 to 40 minutes shaved off that trip in which they aren't behind a wheel. Seven of the 14 coaches will have bike storage, too, to encourage fully car-free multi-modal transit.
The company is also putting offices in Seattle, its first substantial footprint in my fair city, despite being called "Seattle-based Microsoft" for all these years. They'll have space in South Lake Union leased from Paul Allen, where a street car is going in (street-car-Fi?), some space near the Amtrak/Sounder station (train-Fi?), and in Pioneer Square, a few blocks from the ferry dock (there is, in fact, ferry-Fi).
What remains to be seen is if Microsoft will tap Seattle-based Junxion for their cell router on the buses. (Junxion really is in Seattle; I just biked by their office on the way to my office.) Update: Bishop confirmed Junxion was tapped. Junxion's gear was designed to be used in large-scale deployments, with back-end administrative tools (Field Commander) that allow a single IT person to control configuration and handle updates. Even better for buses: the latest release of their Junxion Box firmware supports the GPS features in the Novatel 720 card. That means that Microsoft could provide real-time tracking of buses via that feature to their employees wondering when the bus would arrive. Of course, the employee might need to use an...iPhone to access a Web page with that detail while waiting at the coffeeshop.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system that links up much of the San Francisco Bay Area is in the first phases of a Wi-Fi rollout: As reported on this site earlier, through intelligence from veteran Wi-Fi guru Matt Peterson, Wi-Fi Rail has been turning on Wi-Fi at BART stations without any publicity. The company says that 1,000 riders have used the Wi-Fi service so far, with more each day (look for a spike today, no?).
The current test involves four stations in San Francisco (Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell, Civic Center). The test could lead to Wi-Fi Rail getting a contract to install service through the system's stations. They will likely charge $10 per day, $30 per month, or $300 per year.
While those interviewed in this article aren't jumping up and down about Wi-Fi, that's probably because of the lack of continuity of service at this moment. Most transportation-based Internet access--ferry, plane, or bus--offers service that starts and ends at stations or stops, but is available throughout. That's a long-term goal for this installation, according to BART. When people realize they can stay connected on a phone call, or use a handheld device with Wi-Fi throughout a trip, they'll be a bit more enthusiastic than they are about whipping out a laptop at a station.
While Wi-Fi is an option on several long-haul/cross-country trains in Canada, the UK, and Sweden, adoption in commuter rail, light rail, and subway systems will likely take quite a bit more testing before becoming commonplace. The challenges of routing signals across complex routes, much of which might involve underground tunnels, adds a lot of cost and complexity in planning, installing, maintaining, and troubleshooting.
Altamont Commuter Express was, at one point, the longest running Wi-Fi-on-rails production system: They ran into snags in providing a significant upgrade for their service, however, which has led to a year-long absence of service. The new satellite-based offering should be rolled out soon, with a price to be set. The University of Phoenix has had a long partnership with ACE, previously fully subsidizing the service, and offering classes on board. The subsidy amount remains to be determined with the new offering.
ACE runs from San Jose through Fremont (via a train station my dad used to own, no kidding), and then east through the foothills to Livermore, through Tracy, and up north to Stockton. When I grew up in the Bay Area, Livermore was practically ultima thule, not a suburb.
Commuters would probably also like to have Wi-Fi on trains: Cities along the Metro-North New Haven Line have added Wi-Fi to some stations: South Norwalk last week and Westport this week. The state's busiest train station, Stamford, will have service next. The funding came from federal grants designed to improve commerce in Fairfield County, and the grant pays for a year's worth of service. "If I miss my train and have to wait, I'll be able to use my laptop," one commuter said.