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:
- BART intends to cover a manageable, finite area. The space in trains can easily be covered using WiFi as the delivery technology.
- BART has full control of the delivery area, no lease rights, light posts, or permissions are needed.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.