Traffic

Free Wi-Fi on mass transit keeps South Florida riders connected

Riders now can spend time on their digital devices with the addition of wireless on trains.
Riders now can spend time on their digital devices with the addition of wireless on trains. EL NUEVO HERALD FILE

In South Florida, where mass transit has always been a hard sell, companies are rolling out technological advances like Wi-Fi to keep commuters connected and occupied.

Tri-Rail, a multicounty regional transportation system, has been quietly rolling out free Wi-Fi, and all 50 passenger cars are now equipped for Internet connection, spokeswoman Bonnie Arnold said. Next up are the stations.

“It will probably take until the end of the year to get everything tested and working,” she said.

The Wi-Fi addition is part of a Tri-Rail upgrade package that includes an app that GPS locates trains for up-to-the-minute updates.

The entire project was originally scheduled for completion by 2016, but the bidding process for app development begins early next year. From there, Arnold said, development should take about 18 months.

The WiFi rollout can’t come fast enough for riders like Jermaine Sadambura, an accounting student at Florida International University.

“You start getting withdrawal symptoms if you're not on the Internet for an hour or two,” he joked.

Necessitated by car trouble, his long Tri-Rail rides to West Palm Beach Rail were boring and unproductive until his car got WiFi, said Sadambura, 30. Now, he is able to study for exams and watch videos when he uses the train.

The smaller-scale Miami-Dade rapid transit system, Metrorail, has long offered free WiFi on all passenger cars and in stations as well as on some buses, like the Kendall Cruiser and Dade-Broward I-95 Express, said Karla Damian, Metrorail spokeswoman.

Each car has a WiFi hub. Collectively, they run up monthly connection fees of about $180,000, Damian said. The stations’ hubs — two each, except for the airport station’s six — were bought for about $70,000 using funds from the federal stimulus of 2009.

“It’s an added bonus users really appreciate,” she said. “Even before you get to work you’re answering emails, you’re surfing and you're connecting.”

For frequent public transportation users like Sid Kaskey, 66, his Nexus Tablet is an essential on his Metrorail commute. The retired law librarian watches vidoes, checks emails and scrolls through Facebook while on the go.

If the county has the means to provide WiFi on public transportation then it has an obligation to do so, he said.

“Reasonably efficient transportation from one point to another with a system that allows work or recreational reading or video viewing as an option will increase ridership, lessen traffic and allow for increased work productivity,” Kaskey said.

But the commute to work or school can do more than increase productivity. It can decrease inequalities, said Vanessa Holman, a bus driver for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Holman has been driving a school bus for half of her life, but in 22 years, she has never seen anything keep her kids as quiet as free bus WiFi, which began in August. Hunched over their phones, her high schoolers tap away at educational websites. Social media and other sites are blocked.

Some don’t have a steady Internet connection at home, so the bus ride is an opportunity to study or do homework.

“It’s a great asset to the kids,” she said, “and it’s a plus for me. I can focus better in traffic.”

Currently only 18 buses offer WiFi, but in the next three months the total will jump to 60, all targeted to longer routes, said Orlando Alonso, administrative director of transportation for Miami-Dade County public schools.

“Right now it’s a pilot test,” he said. “We’re trying to see what they’re really trying to access.”

The installation, done by the Internet provider, is quick and easy. Rigging all 60 buses runs about $80,000, according to Judith Marte, chief financial officer for M-DCPS.

A worthy investment, Alonso said.

“The expectations are kids will have improved writing and research skills,” he said.

This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight. Follow me on Twitter @harrisalexc

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