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May 23, 2008

BART-Fi Moves Closer: Negotiation Under Way

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?


The more connectivity, the better. (You can always turn the device off if you want to be unplugged)

Is no one concerned about laptop theft?

[Editor's note: It's not as if people don't use laptops and handhelds on BART now; I haven't heard of any issues on public transportation with people having their devices stolen at an unusual rate.-gf]

What does 10s of Mbps mean? They should be getting closer to 100 Mbps with the latest Wifi technology (802.11n)...even with mesh.

[Editor's note: No, they shouldn't. This is access on a moving train, underground, using miles and miles of coax as an antenna. Nobody is getting 100 Mbps except in short range, two-computer 802.11n office situations, and no outdoor or metro mesh is delivering 100 Mbps using Wi-FI for true end user bandwidth.-gf]

This project impresses me.
I think we will be seeing more public/private initiatives involving smaller and more focused public areas taking place since the fall of rushed muni initiatives. The fact that they are putting in so much time into the pilot is unique for this market.
Reckon I will be watching this project and company closely. Keep us updated Glenn.