July 14, 2009 By Matt Williams
The New York State Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently issued a "request for expressions of interest" asking wireless broadband vendors to submit technology options and business plans for providing service on the two largest commuter rail lines in the nation.
Though the project is only being explored at this time, the transportation authority is interested in providing Wi-Fi coverage at stations and in passenger cars of the Long Island Rail Road, which runs between New York City and Long Island; and the Metro-North Commuter Railroad, which operates between New York City and northern suburbs. According to the transportation authority, it's considering granting a license for the development of a commercial network.
To be financially viable, a wireless broadband network that covers trains would need riders who use Internet-capable laptops and mobile devices. According to the request for expressions of interest dated July 1, more than four in 10 Metro-North riders have mobile Internet access via cell phone or PDA; 27 percent of Long Island Rail Road customers have the same.
"Several other transportation systems in the U.S. and internationally have explored, are implementing or have operational wireless broadband service on their trains. Some of those efforts have failed for a number of reasons, including difficult operational environments, the high cost of implementation in a railroad setting, and various technology issues," according to the document. "Other on-train wireless broadband programs are considered successful."
Though most of the successful Wi-Fi networks on trains are located in Europe, a few cities stateside are trying them. Beginning late last year, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority started offering what it says is the nation's first free-of-charge Wi-Fi service on commuter rail. Another example is San Francisco's government-operated Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, which in the beginning of 2009 signed a 20-year contract with WiFi Rail, a private company that is picking up the entire $20 million cost of covering BART's 104 miles of track with Wi-Fi. BART riders will have to pay for subscriptions, though there will be limited access to the network for free.
Much like wireless broadband on commercial jetliners or buses, putting Wi-Fi on rails comes with technological hurdles. For safety purposes, the network must not interfere with the existing electronic infrastructure of the railways. Connection speeds can fluctuate when traveling in tunnels or at high speeds.
Responses to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority's request for information are due Sept. 1.