Riding wireless

Broadband Wi-Fi/Wimax mix considered for Sacramento to San Jose line, the biggest train-based deployment in US.

California is considering putting Wi-Fi on the train. The entire Capitol Corridor line - 170 miles from Sacramento to San Jose - would become the largest rail deployment in the US under a plan by the Capitol Corridor Joint Power Authority, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

The Joint Powers Authority, which is managed by the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, will select up to three vendors by early July to conduct limited trials at their own expense in the second half of this year. A formal request for proposals would be issued by early next year.

The request for information (click here for PDF) calls for download speeds of 750 Kbps for users and an additional 1.5 Mbps for onboard train operations like surveillance and maintenance. No pricing model has been set, but vendors, who would eventually operate the service independently, are expected to comment about the economic feasibility of the project.

What technology mix is right for trains? The RFP isn't specifying, but the final result might be a mix of Wi-Fi and WiMax.

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

While the technology exists, would it be so expensive as to be impractical? One estimate puts the cost at $15m. "If (the train agencies) don't want to underwrite the costs, I don't think the vendors will make money or even break even on it," [tech consultant Andrew] Seybold said. "I can't see how it works out."

Demand is high. 71 percent of the train's roughly 750,000 business travellers carry a laptop or handheld device. But even with customers paying relatively high fees for access, the annual revenue would come to only few million per year. Still, that would mean the project could pay for itself within five or six years, and the feature could drive greater ridership.

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