Tracking the Net at train station

`WiFi': Amtrak will offer wireless Internet connections this year from Baltimore to Boston.

February 06, 2004|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Getting stuck at the train station might become a bit more tolerable for laptop owners later this year when six Amtrak stations from Baltimore to Boston start offering wireless Internet connections.

AT&T Wireless will begin installing fiber-optic cable and teacup-saucer-size antennas this spring in six stations along the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak officials announced yesterday.

WiFi - short for wireless fidelity - service should be available to passengers by summer.

Kathy Pettit, wheeling around a Sony Vaio laptop at Baltimore's Penn Station yesterday, could have found a lot of use for an Internet connection, having missed the 1:30 p.m. MARC train to Washington by minutes.

"I'm stuck here for 45 minutes now," said Pettit, 33, an Urban Institute policy analyst who takes the train to Baltimore regularly for meetings at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. "So much of the waiting time is dead time. It would be great if I could check my e-mail or do some work on the computer. That would be really convenient."

More than 1 million weekday passengers, commuters and visitors pass through the six stations that will get the WiFi service: Boston Route 128, Providence, New York Penn Station, Philadelphia 30th Street, Wilmington and Baltimore.

With ridership increasing every year, Amtrak officials said, WiFi service is a large leap in technology that will make it easier for passengers to send or read e-mail, surf the Internet, log onto corporate intranets, instant-message or download digital entertainment while waiting for the next train.

Once AT&T Wireless installs its equipment, anyone with a WiFi-enabled laptop or personal digital assistant will be able to use the system. If the users are AT&T Wireless customers, they can use their credentials to go online. Others can connect to the service with an online credit card payment of $9.99, which buys each user unlimited access for 24 hours.

"There is a mutual benefit here," said Martin A. Nee, an AT&T Wireless spokesman. "Business travelers, in particular, are trying to use their time most efficiently. This will help people who want to stay connected. We know the demand is there. We have been targeting airports and hotels throughout the country, so Amtrak stations were a natural progression for us."

Nee said the company is studying the possibility of allowing other WiFi service providers to piggyback on its Amtrak system for a small fee.

For the past 1 1/2 years, AT&T Wireless has pursued a strategy of expanding its high-speed WiFi service. The company has contracts with seven U.S. airports and several hotel chains. The Redmond, Wash.-based company, which posted a fourth-quarter loss amid disappointing growth, confirmed recently that it is weighing a merger with another wireless carrier.

As wireless access zones continue sprouting around the world in coffee shops, airports and elsewhere - many charging a fee and some, as is the case with Baltimore's Inner Harbor, offering service for free - AT&T is eager to take the lead in the effort, Nee said. AT&T Wireless is expected to spend about $3 billion this year in upgrading its infrastructure.

AT&T Wireless is also studying the possibility of building a system that would allow uninterrupted WiFi service along the Northeast Corridor during a train trip, Nee said.

"I live on my laptop. I use it day in and day out," said Paul Smith, 57, a Morristown, N.J., resident who works for a manufacturer of video surveillance equipment and travels to Baltimore and Washington at least once every few weeks for business. "It's a 3 1/2 -hour trip. If I could use it on the train, it would be wonderful."

Amtrak officials said they have no plans to offer WiFi connections on trains.

A pilot program in Northern California is testing WiFi service by PointShot Wireless on the Altamont Commuter Express from Stockton to San Jose. The free service is the first of its kind in the country for train passengers. Canada has begun a similar pilot effort on its trains.

Some countries in Europe, including Britain, offer WiFi service on trains.

"If the technology becomes available here, we'd love to look into it," said Marcie Golgoski, an Amtrak spokeswoman. "We know that so many of our passengers are looking to stay connected to their e-mail and their work at the office because it gives them an advantage to stay on top of their game.

"I think this is the way the world of technology is going. ... "

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