Ravell Call, Deseret News
UTA promotes Wi-Fi service on its FrontRunner trains as a benefit to increase commuter productivity and provide an enjoyable riding experience. But Wi-Fi woes make it anything but productive and enjoyable.

Utah Transit Authority has for a number of years offered a mobile Wi-Fi signal on some of its long-distance “express” buses, with the signal serviceable and the experience manageable. UTA’s “Internet On the Go” has not only been offered on FrontRunner — the commuter trains connecting Salt Lake City, Ogden and Provo and all points in between — but it has been promoted as a service to riders for increased productivity, entertainment or relaxation during their rides. And the newer train cars are equipped to be more convenient for online use, including more tables and electrical outlets.

But a poor Wi-Fi experience results in limited productivity, more aggravation than relaxation and not a whole lot of entertainment — unless one’s idea of fun is watching FrontRunner riders repeatedly tap the “refresh” key in impatient, vain hopes of improving online access.

Mass-transit numbers nationally have never been higher, with transit systems looking to enhance the rider experience. If you’re going to move today’s masses — workday commuters, students, sports fans, cultural-event patrons, shoppers and such — you’ve got to move them with their mass media of choice, the Internet.

Internet on the move for people on the move is done primarily through two services — cellphone service providers with Wi-Fi and data plans and mobile Wi-Fi services. While wireless Internet was once primarily the domain of homes and workplaces, one can get Wi-Fi signals when buying books or burgers — some tech-savvy communities offer free Wi-Fi zones in key gathering places or areas of high foot traffic.

UTA deserves credit on a couple of fronts — first, to acknowledge the problem and to be actively working to not only improve the offering and the experience but to also look at possibly extending it in the future to the TRAX light-rail system and regular metro buses.

Next, UTA continues to provide the service despite the challenges — the Wi-Fi accessibility is welcome and well-used when functioning properly for all. Other metro areas, such as Seattle and the San Francisco Penisula’s Caltrain, have simply dumped commuter Wi-Fi service in the past when experiencing challenges and limitations.

Also, UTA has offered its Wi-Fi service without an additional charge, saying the cost is included in the regular fare. Other cities have tried to cover Wi-Fi costs with user fees or an over-abundance of online advertising. A note: UTA admits considering these pass-the-cost-to-the-consumer alternatives.

There are a number of factors at play with UTA’s Wi-Fi woes, primarily the increased number of riders (and potential Wi-Fi users) from a single express bus to multi-car commuter train as well as the explosion of digital devices. Look around at the FrontRunner passengers and you’ll see most passengers using a laptop, tablet or smartphone — and some using a combination of several simultaneously.

And while UTA may have thought some passengers might use their cellphone service for online use, many cell-service customers try to conserve their cell usage by constantly looking for free Wi-Fi alternatives.

Other challenges include the difficulty of providing a consistent signal to a fast-moving, multi-user system as well as onboard equipment being constantly jostled and vibrated by the speed and bumps of on-tracks transportation, often loosening connections and requiring more ongoing maintenance than originally projected. And typical of ever-advancing technology, Wi-Fi systems quickly become dated and in need of enhancements and revisions to meet increased demands in number of users and size and speed of bandwidth.

Today’s innovations are tomorrow’s standards — as evidenced by the use of and demand for Wi-Fi access and the use of smartphones and tablets. We hope UTA’s corrective efforts on today’s needs for consistent, dependable Wi-Fi access don't cause too many delays.