Capitol Corridor explores Wi-Fi possibility

News AASHTO Journal April 19, 2006
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Train officials are exploring a plan that would light up the Capitol Corridor line from north of Sacramento to San Jose, Calif., with wireless broadband coverage in what could lead to the largest onboard train deployment of its kind in the U.S., the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

According to the paper, the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority is seeking comments about a plan to provide broadband along the 171.5 miles of the Capitol Corridor railway, which runs from Auburn north of San Francisco down through Richmond, Oakland and San Jose.

The proposed service would allow travelers to browse the Internet, exchange e-mails and download and upload large attachments while traveling along at speeds of up to 80 mph.

There are still technical and economic questions about the proposed service. However, despite these hurdles, the project has generated interest from other transit agencies such as BART, Los Angeles County’s Metrolink and the Altamont Commuter Express.

The Joint Powers Authority, managed by the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, will select up to three vendors by early July to conduct trials at their own expense later this year, the Chronicle reported. A formal request for proposals would be issued by early next year.

No pricing model for the project has been set yet, but vendors—who would eventually operate the service independently—are expected to comment about the economic feasibility of the project, the newspaper reported.

The proposal does not specify a preferred technology, and officials said they are eager to see what new solutions might be combined to provide the necessary wireless coverage.

Jim Allison, principle planner for the Joint Powers Authority, said the available technology, including satellite and various forms of wireless and cellular service, are ready to put broadband on a train.

“All of this relates to a deployment scheme that we feel is probably right for installation,” Allison said. “We just need to see what the industry can put together.”

The final results would most likely be a combination of technologies with WiMax wireless technology playing an important role, the Chronicle reported. WiMax has a longer reach than Wi-Fi and can be configured to provide access to fast-moving vehicles.

WiMax antennas would be placed along the right of way and would connect to the Internet via fiber-optic connections, the paper reported. WiMax receivers on the train would translate the signal into Wi-Fi on the train cars.

Most observers said the technology exists to make the project happen, but some question whether there is enough demand to ensure the service is economically viable, the paper reported.

Technology analyst Andrew Seybold said it could cost more than $15 million just to install the network along the railway, and tens of thousands of dollars each month to maintain it.

“If (the train agencies) don’t make underwrite the costs, I don’t think the vendors will make money or even break even on it,” Seybold said. “I can’t see how it works out.”

Transit officials say there is a strong demand for onboard broadband. According to the Capitol Corridor’s statistics, 56% of its 1.25 million annual riders are business travelers, 71% of whom carry a laptop or handheld computer.

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