Next stop, Baltimore's Penn Station, a bona fide `hot spot'

October 17, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,SUN REPORTER

Head down, eyes focused, Alexis Brown sat on a bench at Penn Station yesterday, typing fast on a laptop.

"I'm writing a paper that's due in an hour," said Brown, a second-year law student at the University of Baltimore, her tone slightly anxious. She'd been too busy to notice, she said, that the train station was newly equipped as a Wi-Fi "hot spot," a system that would enable her, if she chose, to send her paper directly to her professor via e-mail.

The Wi-Fi setup was established Monday at Penn Station and at four other Amtrak terminals on the Northeast corridor - Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, Wilmington Station in Delaware, Washington's Union Station and Penn Station in Manhattan. A few signs placed around the Baltimore station advertised the new wireless service, although most commuters passed them by, apparently oblivious.

A few feet from Brown, Dale Gray was also busy on his laptop as he waited for his train. Like her, he was unaware that he could go beyond mere word processing to accessing the Internet.

"If it's available, I'll use it, absolutely," said Gray, whose position as associate director of digital media for the publishing house Lippincott Williams & Wilkins makes him savvy in all things Wi-Fi. "I'd like it if they had it on the trains, too."

Amtrak might do just that, according to Penn Station's manager Charles Hite. "I know they're looking at the possibility of having it on the trains as well," he said of the Wi-Fi broadband system, which is managed by T-Mobile and requires a subscription and a wireless networking card.

Hite said that, five or six years ago, Amtrak had experimented with a Wi-Fi connection at Penn Station, but did not make it permanent at the time.

"As more people started to use the Internet, there was a lot of demand for it in the station," Hite said, standing at the counter by his office. "A lot of people would come in here and ask us if they could use our computers. They needed important information and needed Internet access, but we couldn't let them."

Things are different now. At the information desk in the middle of the station, a sign advised travelers that "T-Mobile HotSpot is here," and that all they have to do is "launch your browser to connect in public areas such as the main seating area, lounge and caf? and stay connected with blazing-hot wireless Internet access."

Wellington Ashe, a regular Wi-Fi user who was bound for Washington holding a case that appeared to contain a computer, welcomed the news - with some reservations.

"It just makes you wonder about privacy and piracy," said Ashe, a Mount Royal resident who works at the capital's Child and Family Services Agency. "If you're using a publicly accessible Internet wave, people could ostensibly tap into your particular signal if they had the expertise. I guess that with all conveniences come some exposure."

The benefits far outweigh the risks, Robert Hoskins, editor of the online publication Broadband Wireless Exchange, said yesterday from his office in Gilbert, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb. And the possibilities of Wi-Fi are almost limitless, he said, far beyond locations like coffee shops and college campuses.

"You can already get it on airplanes, on subways, even in taxis in some places," said Hoskins. "Cell-phone carriers are terrified. In the long run, you'll be able to do more with Wi-Fi than with any cell phone."

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