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Wi-Fi train proposal put on hold
September 06, 2007, 12:00 AM By Dana Yates

An ambitious plan to provide wireless Internet access to Caltrain passengers is derailing with no acceptable proposals from potential bidders.

Caltrain touted its plan to provide continuous high-speed wireless Internet access, or Wi-Fi, on its Peninsula trains last year. It was planning to be the first rail agency in the United States to have Wi-Fi. A year later, however, Caltrain appears headed in the same direction as many other pubic entities that once boasted similar grand plans.

The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which governs Caltrain, is set to reject the only two bids it received on the project — one is too expensive and the other is too restrictive.

"Unless the technology changes and it becomes cost effective, it will probably not happen until 2013,” said San Mateo County Supervisor Jerry Hill, who sits on the board of directors.

Caltrain staff proved the technology could work in a "proof-of-concept” demonstration last year. Following that, the agency issued a request for proposals to which 94 firms responded by downloading information from the Caltrain Web site. Only two companies submitted proposals.

Nomad Digital Limited, of Newcastle, England, called for a "substantial financial investment by Caltrain” and did not provide projected net revenue for Caltrain, according to a staff report issued earlier this week by Chief Administrative Officer George Cameron.

T-Mobile, of Frisco, Texas, provided a level of service that was not widely available. Its plan might also place too much demand on Caltrain staff, according to the report.

T-Mobile often charges a subscription to access its wireless hot spots.

"As staff examined what was a bold initiative, it became clear that at this time, the objectives envisioned could not be attained,” according to Cameron’s report.

Instead, Cameron suggests the Wi-Fi plan be incorporated into the Caltrain 2025 plan, which outlines major upgrades such as electrification of the rails. Under that plan, Caltrain hopes to have the entire line electrified by 2013, allowing for faster moving trains.

Caltrain is the latest public entity to experience disappointing responses to large-scale wireless plans. Last week, San Francisco, Chicago and St. Louis announced the collapse of deals that would provide citywide Wi-Fi.

Cost of providing service and Earthlink’s financial troubles are the main reasons cited for the failed plans. A similar system that would blanket the Peninsula is also going slower than anticipated.

The Peninsula Corridor JPB meets 10 a.m. Thursday in the second floor auditorium at the San Mateo County Transit District Administrative Offices, 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos.

Dana Yates can be reached by e-mail: dana@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.

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