Initial impressions of Wi-Fi Rail’s BART service

Last week, I learned about the Wi-Fi service on the downtown corridor for BART. I’ve been riding BART all week, in part due to the collapse of the freeway that runs between my home and the office. As a result, I’ve used the service quite a bit this week.

Wi-Fi Rail claims to cover the platforms at the four stations in the downtown corridor (Civic Center, Powell, Montgomery, and Embarcadero), plus the tunnel between Civic Center and Powell. To put this in proper context, consult the BART system map.

After using for the network for a week, here’s a few notes on how to use it to its best advantage:

  • Stay on the platform side of the train. In the downtown corridor, all the stations have a center platform, so the doors on the left side of the train open. I have sat on both the left side and the right side of the train, and I have noticed that the network performs better when I sit on the left, presumably because it it closer to the access points covering the platform, and it is closer to the metal walls of the train.
  • Sit on the first car of the train. If you’re in the lead car of the train, your 802.11 device can look for the access point as the train enters the station, not as it finishes pulling in to the station. There may also be an advantage to sitting in the first car because the signal only needs to penetrate the front of one car and not multiple cars, but that’s a speculative theory without knowing more about the placement of access points.
  • Don’t count on the network when moving. I’m not sure where the access points are, but I doubt they are on the train. There are no new devices that are apparent on the trains themselves, and the signal strength fluctuates wildly enough that it seems like the the access points are placed along the train line and not on the train cars. 802.11 doesn’t do vehicular speeds between devices all that well, unless you’ve engineered a wide area network.
  • Don’t expect anything in the tunnels. Although Wi-Fi Rail has specifically stated that they tried to cover the tunnel between Civic Center and Powell stations, I don’t see a qualitative difference between it and the other two tunnel segments. I’m able to use the network to get work done by paying attention to when the signal is good and sending data, or by queuing up data to go when a connection is restored.

Coverage is not great once you leave the platform, which restricts the buyers to BART riders who have a long wait on the platform at one of the four stations. A passenger like me who rides through the stops would hardly notice, since it’s scheduled as a five-minute trip. (Are business travelers riding to the airport a big market for Wi-Fi services?)

From a practical perspective, it seems like the only people who would be willing to spend the money are those waiting for a train, not those getting off. If you are getting off because you live close and were willing to pay the high price, a broadband connection is probably a few minutes away at home. If you’re transfering to a bus, there are hot spots at street level. If you’re transfering to the to the Muni Metro subway, forget about using electronic devices at rush-hour because the trains are so crowded.

I’ll stick with my unlimited cell data plan from T-Mobile, which offers continuous EDGE service through the downtown tunnels, and adds the ability to use any T-Mobile hot spot in the country.

5 Responses to “Initial impressions of Wi-Fi Rail’s BART service”

  1. Catharine says:

    WiFi Rail Service installation plan .. *(note one tube scheduled to be active by end of June)

    The WiFi Rail – BART testing and demonstration period is staged in three phases.

    Phase 1A will provide WiFi access at the following stations:
    Embarcadero
    Montgomery Street
    Powell Street
    Civic Center

    Phase 1B, completion expected by end of June, in the tubes between Civic Center and Powell Street.

    Phase 1C will complete the testing and demo phase by demonstrating terrestrial access at the Hayward Test Track.

    Once the completion of the testing has been successful and approved by BART then a system wide deployment may be possible. Service fees will not be collected, and remain free, until much of the network has been completed. Initial users of the partial system will be invited to participate in discounted initial memberships.

    The date for testing of services has not yet been set.

  2. […] You heard it here first. In May, I wrote that the new Wi-Fi service on BART needs some improvement. My blog post was picked up by the Contra Costa Times, and here’s what they had to say about my overall impression that it’s a marginal service: [BART spokesperson Linton] Johnson acknowledged that Wi-Fi Rail is adjusting the placement of the access points. […]

  3. Rafael says:

    Here are my screenshots of the experience.

    http://www.geocities.com/rlymp/

  4. dj says:

    Hi,

    do you know how to get the bart to not pop up when I click on my email?

    sincerely,

    dj

  5. […] this Sacramento Bee article describing a imminent deal between BART and Wi-Fi rail. (I tried the Wi-Fi Rail service, but wasn’t […]

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