Metra eyes tech firm to bring Wi-Fi aboard
Jan 17, 2013 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Metra may hire a San Francisco-based technology company to help bring wireless Internet service aboard commuter trains, officials said.
Officials are seeking approval of a $200,000 contract with Xentrans Inc. to manage a Wi-Fi pilot project on one of Metra's 11 lines, possibly this year, according to a staff memo.
"Given the value of Wi-Fi as an enhancement to the customer riding experience, and the nearly universal application of this technology at other transportation hubs such as airports," it's a good idea to evaluate Wi-Fi on trains, Metra CEO Alex Clifford wrote in the memo.
Metra customers Wednesday agreed. "Almost everyone on these trains has a (mobile) device of some sort," commuter Phil Clarke, of Western Springs, said as he boarded a BNSF train at Union Station.
"If it's a phone, you can do some things, but if you've got Wi-Fi you can do much more."
It's unknown whether Wi-Fi would be free, but Abhay Kumar said he'd pay for the service.
"It's a one-hour journey (home to Aurora)," Kumar said. "So you would like that time to use productively."
It was unclear what line would be chosen for the service.
Metra has been studying how to bring Wi-Fi to its trains for the past two years.
The agency solicited requests in 2011 from companies to provide the service at no cost to Metra, but the effort was unsuccessful, according to the memo.
Clifford is asking Metra's board to hire Xentrans to oversee development of the project and to find "the most qualified and competitive" companies to install a Wi-Fi system. Xentrans' work would be completed in four months, the memo said.
Metra's board is scheduled to consider the contract Thursday.
Metra needs to hire an outside company because the agency's staff lacks the resources and technical expertise to oversee the project, Clifford said.
"The complexity of delivering fast and reliable Wi-Fi service aboard a moving train cannot be understated," Clifford said, citing the changing topography and proximity of cellphone towers along the right of way.
The potentially large number of passengers on a train who might use Wi-Fi at the same time would require a large amount of bandwidth, he noted.
Xentrans has experience launching Wi-Fi systems on Amtrak and bus and commuter rail agencies in California and New York, according to the memo.
"Transit agencies have struggled with this task for many years, finding it difficult to (provide) service at a cost reasonable to the organization, passengers and taxpayers," Clifford said.
Xentrans officials could not be reached Wednesday.
The CTA said Wednesday that it has no plans to offer Wi-Fi on its trains "given the availability of alternative service and the challenge of recouping the investment that would be needed to offer Wi-Fi across our system."
Metra officials have been looking at the experiences of other rail agencies for some time. The Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, for example, runs at least two Wi-Fi cars per train on its 13 lines.
Customers have reported spotty service, however, according to local news reports.
Tribune reporter Jon Hilkevitch contributed.
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