Wi-Fi Provider Signs Deal With BART

Riders on the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District's trains will be able to buy Wi-Fi Internet access on a network scheduled to cover all 104 miles (167 kilometers) of the rail system by 2011.

BART has signed a deal with startup Wi-Fi Rail to build out the network, which will be supported by subscriptions and offer brief bursts of surfing for free with commercials. Wi-Fi Rail estimates service will cost US$30 per month or $300 per year, with a per-day deal for $9 and two hours of service for $6 also available. Free service will offer about three and a half minutes of access, preceded by 30 seconds of video commercials, said Wi-Fi Rail spokesman Michael Hernandez.

Municipal Wi-Fi initiatives have had mixed success, notably in San Francisco, where EarthLink and Google dropped a closely watched plan to cover the city with Wi-Fi in 2007. But public transit systems such as BART, which thousands of commuters use every day, offer a captive audience that Wi-Fi Rail believes can support a high-speed wireless LAN.

All the subscribers on each car will share a 15M bps connection through a Cisco Systems access point on board, which in turn would connect to a trackside network. They will be able to use the service for corporate VPN (virtual private network) access an VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) as well as regular browsing. The 15M bps speed has been achieved on trains going as fast as 81 miles per hour, and passengers have been able to send live streaming video from trains, according to Wi-Fi Rail.

Part of the network is already deployed, covering four stations in downtown San Francisco. Riders have been able to sign up for free service during more than a year of testing, and more than 15,000 have done so, according to Wi-Fi Rail. The service will remain free until the network covers all of San Francisco and Oakland, plus the tunnel beneath San Francisco Bay that connects the cities. The company expects to finish that deployment later this year. The rollout across the entire BART system is expected by 2011.

In addition to passenger Internet access, the system can be expanded with a parallel network to support public safety and security applications, customer information services and telemetry applications for maintenance, Wi-Fi Rail said.

Wi-Fi Rail says it has four patents pending on its network technology, but that the BART network will use standard components. On the downtown San Francisco test network, and another system on a BART test track, the company used two different technologies. On outdoor tracks, it used standard outdoor access points with line-of-site antennas as uplinks from the on-board access points. In tunnels, it used "leaky coax," a deliberately unshielded cable. The company claims it will be the largest high-speed mobile Internet LAN in the U.S.

Wi-Fi Rail hopes to sell subscriptions to as many as 20 percent of regular BART riders. Total ridership on an average weekday is more than 350,000.

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