UTA plan will let riders surf Web while they ride

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An experiment that put wireless Internet access on four express buses worked so well the Utah Transit Authority plans to extend the service to all of its motor coaches by the end of the year.

That means more than 6,000 UTA riders from Salt Lake, Davis, Utah and Weber counties could use their commute hours to complement their workdays, transit agency officials say.

A 60-day pilot program on four buses this past winter convinced UTA to expand wireless capability on all 48 of the large express buses now in service and perhaps to 12 more that are on order, said agency spokesman Chad Saley. UTA now is writing its request for proposals to complete the system.

Orem resident Ashley Elliott, a part-time Utah Valley State College student who works in Salt Lake County, said she'd like the service on her route 801 bus because she could catch up on her schoolwork.

"Or I could get an early start on my work so I could get off earlier," she said.

A survey of riders who took four wireless-capable buses between Ogden and Salt Lake City in November and December showed that's exactly what they did, too. Another survey result - the one UTA had been hoping for - was an indication that offering wi-fi would attract more riders.

"Free Wireless Access keeps me riding the bus," a survey respondent said. "Though driving to work would get me faster, wireless access is an incentive to me to stay off of the road. This is the single best thing about riding the bus. Keep it UP!! Please!!!"

Others complained that service wasn't reliable, and that UTA ought to offer in on all the express buses, not just a few.

"Love the service. It's spotty at times," a respondent said. "I'd not pay for it unless I could use it consistently without service interruption."

Average April ridership on the 48 MCI coach buses now in service totaled 6,281. But of course, not everyone would be interested in connecting.

"I'd just look for more things to buy," said Provo resident Jeff Smith, an ironworker on the Capitol restoration job who rides the 801 but would have a hard time stowing his laptop during the day.

Saley said the pilot period helped them and Parvus Corp. of Salt Lake City de-bug the system that tapped the Sprint wireless network along Interstate 15. Riders who lost their signal happened to be on a bus whose router wasn't adequate to meet demand.

"We had some hardware issues. It wasn't coverage," Saley said. "[System designers] underestimated how many people would use the service."

Those four coaches still have their wireless routers, but no longer are dedicated to the four specific trips they ran each weekday during the trial. Signs inside the buses inform riders how to use the service. Saley said the route 72 bus that leaves the Layton Mall at 7:14 a.m. is one of the wi-fi coaches 95 percent of the time. "But we're not guaranteeing access," he said.

Equipment for each of the four buses cost about $5,000. UTA paid for rigging up two buses and Parvus the other two. Parvus works for military and aerospace clients as well as transit organizations.

UTA has not decided whether to keep the wireless service free or charge a fee. Transit agencies elsewhere have done both.

MassTransitMag.com recently reported that free systems generally are built by transit agencies, while private vendors install systems that allow riders to pay a log-on fee similar to that used at airports and other public venues.