BART WiFi — Is It Different Than Muni WiFi?

from the VoIP-at-80mph dept

BART, the regional train service for the San Francisco Bay Area, announced this week that it was going forward after a pilot project to provide public WiFi access on its train lines under a partnership with WiFi Rail, Inc. BART expects to cover 104 miles of track and 43 stations by 2011. Since BART is government-run, this plan is inevitably discussed in the context of the (mostly) failed muni-WiFi plans we heard so much about from 2004-2007, but the BART plan has some key differences which will help it succeed where blanket WiFi coverage failed.

Here are 10 reasons why it sounds like a good plan; 5 based in technology and 5 based in business:

  1. BART intends to cover a manageable, finite area. The space in trains can easily be covered using WiFi as the delivery technology.
  2. BART has full control of the delivery area, no lease rights, light posts, or permissions are needed.
  3. Although BART uses WiFi as a delivery technology, it really is a fiber network, and Wi-Fi is only used to connect to subscribers the last few yards, because WiFi is so ubiquitous in consumer electronics. The fiber “future-proofs” the network, whereas the Wi-Fi can be relatively cheaply updated to newer standards or protocols if required. Other existing rail solutions tend to use cellular or satellite backhaul, which has nowhere near the capacity of fiber optics, has dead zones, and doesn’t work underground. These cellular/WiFi hybrid solutions will find it hard to compete with future cellular direct-to-consumer offers.
  4. BART has rights-of-way for the core network all along their rail lines. It can easily install and manage its own backhaul (fiber) as well as the delivery (WiFi) network.
  5. The fiber/WiFi hybrid network will work in the tunnels and underground. No other wireless technology will be able to compete, without explicit permission from BART to go into its tunnels.

    Now on to the marketing reasons:

  6. It’s clear that commuters on a train may have some demand for connectivity. Sure, some prefer to sleep or read, but some will want to work or play online. These people are often captive, seated, and bored – a great target market.
  7. Further, the density of bodies on a train makes for a better market than muni WiFi’s parks and streets. Population density is like catnip to telecom providers.
  8. BART is intelligently offering flexible pricing. Unlike the telcos one rate of $60/month with a two year contract, BART will offer annual, monthly, and daily plans immediately, and there is talk of a 2-hour price, and even a 3 minute, ad-supported freebie. BART seems to be smart about removing the barriers for trial and familiarization. The prices seem a bit high, but the range of choices and the lack of commitment are nice.
  9. BART can use the network for its own operations: for train telemetry, for surveillance cameras, security, etc. This amortizes the cost and makes the business case better.
  10. BART can use the system to pump real-time content and advertising to screens in stations and in trains. Train displays will show location-sensitive ads and information based on current location, and time of day.

Some of the potential negatives are, as mentioned, the price is still too high. The market will likely push them down, and hopefully, the business can withstand that. But captive audiences may reluctantly pay. The contract with WiFi Rail, Inc. has raised eyebrows in that it has a 20-year duration. That does seem awfully long for a technology deal — even if it is optical fiber-based. Future-proof tech is one thing, but 20 years! Hopefully BART has escape clauses in the deal if the vendor should disappear or fail to perform sometime in the next two decades. Muni WiFi failed because it tried to make the technology do something it wasn’t intended to do. But in this case, appropriate technologies are being used correctly, trials were run, true costs are understood, and hopefully other rail operators will be considering similarly structured solutions worldwide.

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Comments on “BART WiFi — Is It Different Than Muni WiFi?”

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Bhaktha says:

Wi-Fi in a moving train ?

Will the Wi-Fi service be available in a moving train ? The analysis in techdirt or the linked article is not clear on this. Anybody know about this ?

If it is available on a moving train how do they give coverage with a fiber backhaul (which is along the tracks) ?

Agree with Mike’s point on trying (the futility of it) to use a LAN technology like Wi-Fi for wide area coverage. I do think that Wi-Fi on BART falls under the same fallacy. For example what happens when 3G/LTE/WiMax becomes ubiquitous and fairly cheap. Remember there were digital cordless telephone standards (like DECT) and satellite standards (like the now infamous Iridium), but both fell on the way side because the cell-phone coverage/cost/reliability became acceptable (agree there are still dropped calls in tunnels, basements, elevator-shafts etc, but these are fairly tolerable exceptions)

There is a pilot service here in India to have Wi-Fi on the Shatabdhi trains (the pilot is on the Mumbai-Ahmbedabad route). This one does provide Wi-Fi access on the move (don’t know the technology behind it)


Matt says:

niche market, old problems


One thing you put as a business case will cause serious problems all over again. This is the same thing as cable, where the gov’t has a long lasting locked-down contract. Paraphrased, but as you said there cannot be any competition without them letting other companies provide WIFI in the tunnels or some way of having them compete. For that reason, the market pushing down prices will be quite limited. It’s not like they’d just “choose someone else”. Simple supply & demand vs competition are two separate things to control price. They are more influential together than separate.

Former Commuter says:

The differences between Muni and BART are huge. Who ever posted this, probably never lived in the Bay Area. Muni is a local to SF system, riders sit and stand. During commute hours, using WIFI on Muni is next to impossible. Rides on Muni are also very short.

BART on the other hand, riders travel great distance. You can live in Burlingame, and work in Pittsburgh. You’ll ride the train for close to 1 hour to make that ride. Richmond to San Francisco is around 40 minutes, and is a very common route.

The point is…you have much more opportunity to pull out a laptop and work. However, during non-commute hours and late night, I’m not too sure I’d want to whip out a laptop. I held onto mine with a vice grip.

I think the opportunity for iPhone users is greater.

Glenn Fleishman (profile) says:

Who is in charge and tech details

I agree with most of Derek’s points, but calling this a BART Wi-Fi system is simply incorrect. This is a system that Wi-Fi Rail has courted BART to allow them to install for years. It took many months from the BART board’s go-ahead to get a contract signed. This is Wi-Fi Rail’s baby to sink or swim, and BART will make use of it.

When you orient this around BART has or can do this or that, you’re making a mistake because Wi-Fi Rail has specifically defined contractual obligations and rights. I haven’t seen the contract yet (I assume most or all will be public), so some of the details Derek writes about may not be encompassed by the current agreement.

As for the tech side, where @1 and others ask how this compares or suggest that it’s available in other systems, Wi-Fi Rail’s approach is entirely different than all, yes all, current train-based Wi-Fi.

With current systems, radios on trains communicate with, typically, existing 3G cellular networks and rely Wi-Fi through onboard gateways in each car. With Wi-Fi Rail, they will use lengths of existing leaky coax (purposely uninsulated wire) that runs alongside existing track underground. These wires serve as antennas for the Wi-Fi signals, allowing them to offer speeds that are typically (in their estimation, not mine, as I haven’t been on a test run yet) 10 times higher than cellular: 15 Mbps versus maybe 1 to 2 Mbps for most 3G cell systems. And that’s 15 Mbps symmetrical, not a small amount up and large amount down.

As far as usage, I polled friends who ride BART (I live in Seattle), and most said there’s no way they could use a laptop on their trains during their commutes. However, with mobile devices and 15 Mbps bandwidth, people could be using iPhones, BlackBerrys, and personal video players that stream video, check email, etc. It’s a lot of bandwidth, far more than you’d get at a hotspot or airport.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Wow, Some Far Out Comments

First of all, thanks Glenn, for adding some value. For those of you who don’t know Glenn, he understands Wi-fi more than any blogger out there (

Glenn, I get that it’s WiFi Rail, Inc. doing the job, as I said it’s a partnership. But your nuance is correct, it’s a WiFi Rail branded service on BART.

As for usage in a crowded train, well, there are handhelds, iPhones, Wifi phones, and increasingly Netbooks. I ride BART on occasion, and I almost always work on my 15″ laptop during the trip using 3G, but lost it in the tunnel. And of course, there are shoulder and off-peak time where one can use two seats as a desk!

Even though the train is often crowded, the seats are automatically allocated to people who would prefer to use a laptop. I live at the end of a BART line, so when I get on a train to go to SF, it is always empty. I get a seat, and I can work easily. This is true for the first few stops. Then the train gets crowded and people need to stand. But it is mainly the people who have an hour ride like me who would choose to boot up and work. People taking shorter rides, and standing, would not choose to boot up a laptop even if the got a seat for their 15 minute ride.

As for some other weird comments:

Comment #1: In your first sentence, you ask a question that my article answers in its first sentence “Does it work in moving trains?” How do you reckon the service works “on its train lines” and “covers 104 miles of track and 43 stations” yet does not work inside trains? I understand English is not your mother tongue, but you’re wrong when you say “the analysis in Techdirt is not clear on this”.

You refer to Mike, but Mike didn’t write the post.

To answer your other question, the fiber runs along the tracks and touches various Wifi access points. These access points are connected to antennas, and leaky-coax antennas, which spread the signal in a linear way along the tracks, tunnels, and stations. WiFi is available in the train, connecting to the signals from along the track.

Then you ask what happens when 3G/WiMAX etc. come along. As I said in the article, these won’t work inside the tunnels, and much of BART’s rails are in tunnels underground. Please just read the article prior to commenting.

Comment #3: All of your observations are correct, except that you didn’t understand the premise. I do live in the Bay Area, and I am familiar with Muni, the transit service. However, this IS a tech blog, and the reader is expected to know what Muni WiFi is. Muni Wifi is a term that has been applied to offering public WiFi service in a municipal area and was popular from 2004-2007, but failed. This should have been obvious in paragraph 1, however, I understand there is room for confusion.

Comment #5: As Glenn already pointed out, NO service like this exists. Every other train or bus deployment uses cellular (or other wireless) to the roof, then WiFi inside the vehicle. This, too, has trouble in dead zones, is relatively low-capacity, usually won’t work in tunnels, and will compare poorly to a direct-3G-to-consumer-device solution. The BART solution is almost fiber to your device.

Comment #9: It is important that we note that Muni, in the opinion of AC, “can suck a large one”. Thank you for that insight, and specific set of action items.

Comment #10: I would think if you were going for the crime/humor angle, you would have integrated getting shot.

Thanks, everyone.

Former Commuter says:

Thanks for the clarification. I know the term Muni WiFi, but given the context of BART story, I had assumed that SF MUNI had attempted a similar service. I last commuted daily to San Francisco in 2003. Living in Auburn, I don’t keep up on San Francisco or Bay Area news to be frank. So if “SF MUNI” WiFi came and went…I wouldn’t have known.

I do appreciate the correction.

Cooper Marcus (profile) says:

If it isn't up and running, why is the damn thing on?!

I ride BART through SF regularly, and often use my iPhone, and sometimes my MacBook, on the train. The WiFi Rail signal is available in some parts of the BART system, and it appears to be an open WiFi network, but there is no connectivity to the Internet.

BART, WiFiRail, or someone – please freakin’ turn off the WiFi signal until you are ready to actually offer working WiFi! You are damaging your brand by leaving this non-functional WiFi network on – and I presume you’ll leave it on for the next few years until you actually make it work in 2011! Please, for your sake (and I really want you to succeed!) turn it off until it is ready to use.

Also, 2011??!! My understanding is that all the necessary fiber is already in place. Why the heck is it going to take 2+ years to connect the leaky coax access points to the existing fiber?!

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