Riding the rails and surfing the Internet

BART riders will eventually be able to surf the Internet while riding on the train, officials from the transit agency said Thursday, after new pilot test results reaffirmed that the program’s pioneering technology works when riding above and below ground.

The pilot project is being conducted by Wi-Fi Rail Inc., which is in negotiations with BART to provide the high-speed wireless network throughout the entire system.

“We rode the system 200 to 300 times, and each time the results were extremely positive,” said Cooper Lee, founder of the Sacramento-based company. “We tried to load up our computers with as many applications as possible and we still found that the connection speed was fast.”

As part of the pilot, the company is already providing wireless service in San Francisco’s four downtown stations.

Lee said the company hopes to install wireless access on the line between Lake Merritt Station in Oakland and Balboa Park Station in San Francisco in four months time — as soon as ongoing contract negotiations are completed with BART. In less than two years, BART’s entire system would be wireless, according to Lee.

BART spokesman Linton Johnson said his organization was pleased with the wireless program’s progress, although he could not give a specific timetable for when contract negotiations with Wi-Fi Rail might be completed.

It will cost Wi-Fi Rail $20 million to install the technology, and $6 million annually to maintain it. BART will pay nothing — even if the program is a failure, said Linton, adding that Wi-Fi Rail would also have to pay the costs to uninstall its equipment.

Wi-Fi rail is banking on making up their costs by charging a subscription fee for its services, but BART officials insisted on having a cost-free version available for its customers.

If riders don’t feel like paying $30 monthly fee, they will have to use a version with advertisements.

Regional companies like Caltrain and Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor are exploring a similar wireless program with Wi-Fi Rail, according to Lee. The Altamont Commuter Express is also in talks, but with other wireless providers, he said.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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