BART Wi-Fi is slow as it goes

BART tunnels and stations have always been a troublesome place to use a cell phone. Signals can’t usually reach that far underground.

Three years ago, BART promised commuters Wi-Fi in stations and tunnels from San Francisco to the East Bay, even in the Transbay Tube. Well, it’s 2012, and riders are still waiting.

Transit systems like the Altamont Commuter Express have offered Wi-Fi for more than a decade, leaving BART in the dust.

BART signed an exclusive 20-year contact with Sacramento’s Wi-Fi Rail back in 2009. The company was supposed to use its own money to install infrastructure and build the service. Eventually, Wi-Fi Rail would charge for its services.

The company set up the installation plan in five phases. Phase two was completed in January.

For now, the unreliable wireless can be “used” while on BART trains in San Francisco, parts of Oakland and the Transbay Tube, CEO Cooper Lee told the Chron.

Of course, that also means you can’t get Wi-Fi in all stations all the time, and trying to pull in a strong signal is about as reliable as stealing your neighbor’s Wi-Fi.

Service is shaky due to difficulty funding the project and working with BART officials to establish when and where Wi-Fi can be made available, Lee said.

The cost to Wi-Fi Rail thus far for this far-from-perfect system is $100,000 a mile.

Only 59 cars at the front and backs of trains, and the middle of 10-car trains, are hotspots.

The company still has 100 more cars to go before commuters can access enough bandwidth for those crazy cat videos.

For now, look for BART trains with shark-fin antennas on top for the best service. Service to the middle cars is expected to be improved by the end of this year.

The next phase of the plan will bring Wi-Fi to Concord on the Pittsburgh-Bay Point line, Berkeley, North Berkeley and Oakland Coliseum stations.

The final phases will include service to Millbrae, Richmond and Fremont stations on the Dublin-Pleasanton lines by the end of 2014.

BART spokeswoman Luna Salaver told the Chron that Wi-Fi is important, but other projects take precedent over it:

“We have been going back to basics recently … such as replacing the wool seats, trying to procure the fleet of the future, making sure our system continues to sustain itself.”

Because BART is not funding Wi-Fi Rail to provide the service, BART Project Manager Chuck Rae said that BART has little say in what is happening:

“To develop it on BART is very expensive, and BART has no investment in it at all. In order to get them to do it, there’s not much of a lever if the funding keeps drying up.¬†We’re lucky that we’ve even gotten them to do what they’ve done. It’s not like they’re obligated to do anything but give it their best shot.”