New York's MTA Eyes WiFi on Trains
Unstrung has seen a Request For Expressions of Interest (RFEI) document, issued by the MTA on July 1, that asks for input from potential bidders on the wireless technologies available, and "to determine whether there is a business case for proceeding with wide-scale deployment."
The transport authority wants responses to the RFEI by September 1. It will review the comments and then consider an initial trial of equipment.
The system, if it gets the go-ahead, would cover the Long Island Railroad and Metro-North Railroad trains and stations. These are the main commuter rail routes into New York City from Westchester County, Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and are two of the busiest lines in the U.S.
The MTA was chided in June by New York senator Chuck Schumer for being slow to deliver wireless Internet access to commuters. The new MTA document describes the possible deployment of wireless connectivity as still being "in the early stages."
The technical problem the MTA faces is getting a consistent WiFi signal into the train's cabin that can securely support a number of customers using the connection. Operators deploying train WiFi systems in Asia and Europe and in other parts of the U.S. have tended to use satellite or cellular radios on top of the trains to provide a WiFi feed in the cabin.
The MTA, however, appears to be asking for some relatively high-bandwidth applications to support services for laptops, PDAs, and WiFi-enabled phones. These services include audio and video streaming, advertising, real-time travel information feeds, and mobile VPN connectivity. It also wants to be able to support ticketing applications and get diagnostic information on the train (while it's in motion) over a secure channel.
If and when a deployment takes place, however, the wireless technology may have evolved to a stage where service providers could support faster connections to trains. Mobile WiMax and Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology can both provide wireless links that enable the ability to download data over-the-air at several megabits per second, and enable handoffs between basestations in fast vehicles without dropping the connection.
Kirkland, Wash.-based Clearwire LLC (Nasdaq: CLWR) says it is bringing WiMax to NYC in 2010. Verizon Wireless is starting its LTE deployment next year, too, but hasn't said if the New York Area will be among its first markets. So, from 2010 onward, the MTA might be able to count on a faster wireless signal for its trains. (See Clearwire Preps $1.5B Deployment in '09.) — Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung