In early April, Wi-Fi Rail, Inc., an Irvine-based company, began installing equipment that allows commuters with Wi-Fi-enabled computers and PDAs to download e-mail or surf the Internet.
"We haven't tried to market the service yet," said Cooper Lee, president and CEO of Wi-Fi Rail. "I'm amazed that people are finding it."
Lee said that more than 1,000 riders have used the Wi-Fi service so far. The number grows daily, but it's still small. About 172,500 passengers pass through the four stations involved in the test each day, according to BART's chief spokesman, Linton Johnson.
The test, which will cost between $1.5 million and $2 million, involves the Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell and Civic Center stations. Lee said that once the test concludes, he hopes Wi-Fi Rail will be designated as the "lead carrier" to install wireless service throughout the BART system, a project that will take between 18 and 24 months to complete and will cost approximately $55 million.
Wi-Fi Rail is advancing the test costs and raising venture capital to pay for the system-wide
Once the BART test concludes, which should occur by the end of the year, Wi-Fi Rail plans to charge customers $10 per day, $30 per month or $300 per year for wireless service; corporate rates also are available.
David Kim of San Francisco takes BART to his job in Richmond. Like the rest of the dozen passengers interviewed, he was not aware that limited Wi-Fi service is already available.
"I would absolutely use it," Kim said, noting that he frequently works on his laptop while commuting. He hopes any charge assessed for the service will be reasonable, which Kim defined as $10 a day or less.
But riders with commutes shorter than Kim's were less intrigued by the prospect of staying "connected" underground.
Shweta Bandi carries her laptop to work every day at Clorox in downtown Oakland. Her BART ride starts at the Embarcadero and ends at Oakland's City Center.
"I only have a 10-minute commute," Bandi said, "but I do think that the service could be good. I check my e-mail frequently; I might use it in the station while I'm waiting or use it if the trains are running late."
Another San Francisco resident, Jared Weisman, commutes from the Civic Center station to Oakland to get to his IT job at APL, a container-shipping company in Oakland. His concern is whether the service will work well in the tubes.
"I don't get a good signal on my cell phone, so it will be interesting to see whether the Wi-Fi works well," Weisman said.
Asked what he thought a reasonable fee would be for the service, Weisman was noncommital.
"I don't know," he said. "I get free Wi-Fi at work, and San Francisco residents may get free service, so how much they charge for the service might sway me one way or the other. If it's too much, I can get by reading or doing something else that's constructive."
Providing Wi-Fi service for passengers is something BART officials have wanted to do for a long time, said Johnson, the BART spokesman.
Other mass transit companies are also offering Wi-Fi. In late May, AC Transit introduced free Wi-Fi for passengers on its 78 transbay buses. A grant from Alameda County's Congestion Management Agency paid for the equipment and two years' worth of access fees.
For the BART service, Lee estimates Wi-Fi Rail will recoup its investment costs once it has about 300,000 subscribers, a goal that may take three or four years. But he believes subscribers will be able to accomplish a lot.
"We want people to be able to videoconference while they're going to work," Lee said. "The speed is going to be really fast."
The promise of reliable, fast service will no doubt please Matthew Gast, a self-described "former physicist [who] tries to make sense of technology." In May, Gast's blog, "Surfing the Luminiferous Ether" (http://blog.matthewgast.com), described Wi-Fi service on the BART as uneven and intermittent.
Johnson acknowledged that Wi-Fi Rail is adjusting the placement of the access points.
"At this point, this is an internal test. Although customer feedback is valuable, this part of the test isn't designed for that. Maybe the next part will be," he said.
The access points are currently located in the stations, but Lee said each of the BART cars will be retrofitted with equipment so the service is reliable and fast, whether the train is above ground or below. That's what BART officials want, too.
"Our goal is to provide a strong, continuous signal for people riding from Pittsburg/Bay Point to Millbrae, or from Richmond to Fremont, that meets or exceeds the service available on cable," Johnson said.
Reach Sonya Hubbard of the Oakland Tribune at firstname.lastname@example.org.