Wi-Fi Provider Bids For San Francisco Transit District

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A new California company, WiFi Rail, is close to sealing a deal with San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit district to build wireless Internet access throughout the transit system. If successful, the network would be the largest transit-based Wi-Fi system in the country.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you hate sitting on a commuter train and listening to the cell-phone conversation of the person next to you, not to worry, because pretty soon, the guy next to you may be quiet. Instead, he'll be jamming his elbow into your ribs while tapping away on a laptop.

A California company wants to provide wireless Internet access to the BART trains, which are the commuter lines around the San Francisco area. Cyrus Farivar reports.

CYRUS FARIVAR: Climb onto the BART test car at the Hayward yard, 30 miles southeast of San Francisco, with Cameron Ydlovski(ph) of WiFi Rail. He pops open his laptop to show me the wireless network he's installed on the train.

Mr. CAMERON YDLOVSKI (WiFi Rail): I'm going to iChat my boss.

FARIVAR: Video conference.

Mr. YDLOVSKI: Exactly. Hey, Russell. Why don't you introduce yourself?

Mr. RUSSELL SIMPSON (Vice President, WiFi Rail): Hi. My name's Russell Simpson. I'm vice president of construction engineering, WiFi Rail. How's the weather up there?

YDLOVSKI: A bit gloomy today. How's the weather down south?

Mr. SIMPSON: I'm actually over about 35 miles west of Phoenix. It's about 85, sunny.

FARIVAR: Other rail lines have tried various types of onboard wireless access that mostly use more expensive satellite or finicky cellular connections. WiFi Rail is planning on laying high-speed, fiber-optic cable alongside the train tracks and then transmitting that signal every mile to the trains. Ydlovski says the connection will be very fast.

Mr. YDLOVSKI: Three to four times faster than your home DSL, and it is continuous, no drops whatsoever, and it's basically better than most Internet services you can get at home.

FARIVAR: And Ydlovski's not the only one who's impressed. Even someone without a technical background can appreciate how fast the network is. Linton Johnson is the chief spokesperson for BART.

Mr. LINTON JOHNSON (Chief Spokesperson, Bay Area Rapid Transit): I was on a video conference call with three different people in three parts of the country and making a phone call and using the Internet and downloading stuff. And it was just lickity-split.

(Soundbite of a train)

FARIVAR: In the past, it's been hard for companies for get enough customers to make money while riding commuter trains like this one. The thing is, if you're on a crowded train, you might not have room to take out your laptop. Or even if you do have room, it's just a hassle to unzip your bag, take your laptop out of its case, open it up, wait for it to boot up - you get the idea.

That's one reason why Wi-Fi industry consultant Monica Paolini has been skeptical about Wi-Fi on trains. She says that while the technology is there, it's been hard to develop a profitable company.

Ms. MONICA PAOLINI (Wireless Industry Consultant): Now this is actually changing quite rapidly, if you take into account new devices like the iPhone or other smart phones, where you can actually use your Wi-Fi connection without having to power up a laptop or opening it or taking it out of the case. So it makes it much more convenient and attractive to use it for short periods of time.

FARIVAR: If you can't wait to use Wi-Fi on your iPhone or any other device, the network is now being tested in four stations in downtown San Francisco. The deal between BART and WiFi Rail will likely be completed within the coming months. For NPR News, I'm Cyrus Farivar.

INSKEEP: San Francisco commuter trains are not the only places where entrepreneurs want to expand wireless access. Consider BoltBus, which is a new bus company on the East Coast. It's offering onboard Internet service.

Chrysler recently announced it's going to equip its 2009 model cars with wireless Internet. The car company says it'll use a system called U-connect, which will generate a 50-foot radius of Internet connection while driving on the highway or parked at a rest stop. So if you need to log in while driving but you do not yet have wireless, not to worry. Just drive very closely behind somebody who does.

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