Wi-Fi trial connects Massachusetts train passengers

Wireless commuting gets a trial run on a Massachusetts commuter line

The wireless access service is a US first, according to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which oversees the state's commuter rail services. It will be available starting January 30 on at least one coach on every train traversing the 45-mile run between Worcester, in central Massachusetts, and Boston.

About 18,000 passengers daily potentially could have the option of free, but unsecured, connectivity via a Wi-Fi access point in the coach, which links with a Sprint cellular interface. Each wireless coach is equipped with a 10-inch antenna for the exterior link to the cell network.

That arrangement clearly offers limited bandwidth. During the test phase, the MBTA promises at least one specially marked coach in each inbound and outbound train will offer wireless connectivity (a total of 45 are being outfitted for wireless). That means the bandwidth of that coach's single Wi-Fi access point will potentially be shared by scores of laptop passengers who want to do more than read the morning edition of The Boston Globe. The real bottleneck will be the cellular data link, but that, too, will depend on the number of users, and the kinds of applications they're running.

The MBTA's online FAQ warns about the limited bandwidth and encourages passengers to use wireless connection for simple Web surfing and e-mail, and not for downloading streaming audio and video. Riders also are cautioned about accessing "inappropriate" Internet content and warned not to expect technical support from the train conductors. The MBTA offers a separate tech support call-in number and e-mail for questions or problems.

A throughput map available online at the MBTA site shows the entire line and the fluctuations in coverage between Boston and Worcester. Most of the results fall somewhere in a "green zone" of what the MBTA call "good signal range," though coverage drops closer to the bottom end of that range the further one gets from Boston. In a few places, the signal range plummets into "poor."

The project is the brainchild of Timothy Murray, a former Worcester mayor and current lieutenant governor. In a local newspaperstory, Murray is quoted as saying the service boosts productivity by connecting commuters to the Internet and "encourages and incentivizes people to take the trains as well."

The MBTA has spent over a quarter of a million dollars -- US$262,000 to be exact -- on equipping 45 coaches for one of the 13 commuter rail lines.

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John Cox

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