Wi-Fi on rails is a headache for riders and UTA

Published August 13, 2014 8:04 am
Transit • Agency is exploring ways to fix and expand service on its trains and buses.
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The Utah Transit Authority is having trouble helping commuters make a different kind of travel connection — with Wi-Fi Internet for tablets, smartphones, laptop computers and other electronic devices.

UTA acknowledges that its Wi-Fi isn't very good right now and says it is trying to upgrade. It is a headache shared by mass transit systems nationally and worldwide, according to recent journal articles.

Clair Fiet, UTA chief information officer, says the system faces two main challenges. First, UTA trains are proving to be a surprisingly harsh environment for Wi-Fi equipment to survive and operate. Second, the explosion of smartphones and tablets has overwhelmed the available Wi-Fi broadband, slowing connections to a crawl.

UTA now offers Wi-Fi only on FrontRunner commuter trains and some long-distance express buses. The agency hopes to expand the service, when affordable, to TRAX trains and regular buses and, in fact, plans to seek exploratory bids soon.

"It's an amenity that people really expect," Fiet says. "So it's not just something we can cut off now because it's not working right. That was made very clear by our board."

Problems • But the system has many problems left to be solved.

One big issue is the setting. FrontRunner trains, Fiet says, pose "an unbelievably harsh environment" for Wi-Fi. "Wires have vibrated loose. Connectors have vibrated loose. Very secure threaded-in connections just slowly twist out after months and months of constant vibration."

UTA underestimated the amount of maintenance the system needs, figuring it could fix problems as they arose. Officials now realize the system needs at least one full-time person to keep it operating.

UTA has worked hard in recent months to fix such problems, Fiet says, and commuters now are likely to find a basic Wi-Fi connection available on all FrontRunner cars — but it isn't very fast because of other problems.

"So if you want to get on, connect and do a little email, for example, you probably will have a worthwhile experience," he says. "But if you want to get on and download large files or stream music or video, you're going to have a difficult time."

That's because FrontRunner's Wi-Fi system was designed before the explosion of smartphones and tablets that tax available bandwidth.

Most people in the industry had assumed "there would be less and less need for provided Wi-Fi," Fiet says, because people would subscribe to cellphone service that would provide continuous high bandwidth no matter the location.

Not-so-broadband • While high bandwidth is indeed now available through subscriptions, people want to save money on their cell plans by using free Wi-Fi where available. The UTA system wasn't designed for such high demand and instead was intended to serve perhaps a few people using laptop computers on each train car.

Even if smartphone and tablet users now think they are not using the onboard Wi-Fi, their devices often are "trying to connect or may have some data it's automatically set to download," Fiet says. "So it's this very constant overload of demand."

As FrontRunner was built, UTA installed a fiber Internet line in a conduit that feeds into rail-side antennas. They connect to wireless devices aboard trains that convert it into Wi-Fi. Fiet said that system currently is unable to expand existing bandwidth.

Also, UTA found as trains go through neighborhoods, "there's all kinds of electronic interference up and down the corridor that we can't predict," Fiet says. "As it turned out, it's very difficult as you are proceeding at speed to switch from one channel, let go of that and switch to another in time to maintain a good wireless feed."

Upgrades coming? • UTA is seeking a better system to overcome problems and keep up with demand. It is preparing a request for proposals from cellular or other broadband providers and hopes to put that out by year's end, and perhaps have an improved system sometime next year.

As part of the bidding process, Fiet says, UTA will also seek proposals on how to possibly expand Wi-Fi to TRAX trains and buses — but says such an effort may prove too expensive for now. UTA has been supporting possible sales tax increases to expand basic bus service, and Wi-Fi is an amenity beyond that.

An an example of the expense, Fiet says the easiest way to offer Wi-Fi on buses would be to add a wireless cellular card to each of UTA's 600 buses. But, at a cost of $50 or more a month per bus, that would translate to a total outlay of about $360,000 annually.

To afford improved Wi-Fi, Fiet says, UTA has explored such things as charging commuters who use it. Polling shows that would be a tough sell, Fiet says.

But, he adds, "we've noticed some rail systems in Europe have a tiered level where you can get a basic Wi-Fi for free, but if you want a higher bandwidth, you would pay more for that. We'll take a look at that, but I doubt it will have much traction."

Fiet adds that some have suggested selling advertising to help fund the Wi-Fi. "But we don't have the concentration that would make that work. We're not a New York or Los Angeles."

Mass transit systems worldwide have reported problems similar to UTA's. The New Cities Foundation and the International Association of Public Transport recently launched an interactive tool online that reports on the Internet connectivity in the world's largest underground subway systems, so travelers know what to expect.

It said that 58 percent of underground trains now offer Internet, and most systems plan to upgrade during the next three years.

"Urbanites are no longer content with being provided with fast, reliable metro connection from A to B. Nowadays they expect a travel experience with all comfort standards they are used to in their daily environment. Uninterrupted and fast broadband connection for their multiple devices is part of that," said Laurent Dauby, director of rail transport for the International Association of Public Transport.



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