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MBTA sluggish in its pursuit of wifi for commuters

It's been more than two years since the original MBTA completion date for the wifi project.
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To the tens of thousands of commuter rail riders who struggle daily with inconsistent wireless connectivity years after state officials promised a smooth new system, the MBTA has a message.

"There is no update on this project to report at this time."

That was MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo's response to the News Service in January, about two years after the original MBTA completion date for a project that was supposed to help riders and workers be more productive during their commutes without draining their personal data allowances.

The News Service turned to the MBTA for an update after a spokesman for BAI Communications, the vendor that is supposed to deliver the wifi system, declined to make any comment or provide any update about the project's future.

March dawned and BAI Communications continued its silence. But the News Service learned the wifi system, which the agency long ago went out of its way to tout as a needed improvement to the commuting experience, actually is a topic of internal MBTA discussion, the lack of an available update notwithstanding.

In response to a News Service Freedom of Information Act request seeking communications involving 11 MBTA officials and executives at BAI Communications in connection with the proposed dedicated wifi network on all MBTA passenger coaches and ferries, the MBTA said 293 emails met the parameters.

Some of the emails have attachments, MBTA assistant general counsel Julie Ciollo wrote in an email to the News Service in February, and the emails and attachments "will need to be reviewed to ensure that they match the subject matter requirements of your request."

Estimating 13 hours of labor would be required to review the emails and attachments for "subject matter accuracy" and stipulating that the first four hours of work would be come with no charge, Ciollo estimated it would cost $231.25 to fully comply with the public records request. 

"This amount must be paid in advance and is just an estimate, which may change when the work is actually performed," she wrote. "Please be advised that the MBTA reserves the right to assert any and all available objections and exemptions under the Public Records Law, and this work will need to be completed before any records are provided to you."

Very exciting time

The MBTA for years has offered free wireless service on its commuter rail coaches, touting it as "one of the first services of its kind aboard commuter rail trains in the U.S." The transit agency cautions users of the limited bandwidth system that "signal strengths may vary and fluctuate and service interruptions may occur." In fact, those service failures are common along the system.

The effort to bring steady, reliable wireless service to commuter rail was dealt a blow in August when the MBTA notified BAI that it will not approve its plans, citing public concerns over impacts of 320 monopoles planned along rail line rights of way. The 70-foot poles are "not consistent with the license agreement," the T said, with former MBTA Interim GM Steve Poftak saying concerns over pole impacts on historic sites and community character were "valid."

In July, members of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation had urged the Federal Communications Commission to consider the impacts of monopoles rising above the tree lines on "the historic and cultural character of the involved cities and towns."

Poftak indicated last October that train safety and the Green Line project would take precedence over the wifi project, but did not say the project was dead. The MBTA in August invited BAI to submit a new implementation plan and said the license anticipated "a more modest project involving the use of 'short monopoles' or 'existing light poles' to provide Wi-Fi, with only 'excess space' available for lease to third party communication providers. BAI's current proposal would double the size of every pole (and install an extensive fiber network) for the purpose of creating infrastructure to lease."

The agency's plans for a new system date back nearly four years - to July 2014 - when the T announced plans for a $5.6 million system to expand and improve wireless connectivity access on 14 commuter rail lines. Former MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott signed a 22-year licensing agreement with inMOTION Wireless Inc., which in March 2017 was acquired by BAI Communications. The original timetable called for the new system to be in place at the start of 2016.

"This is a very exciting time for our Commuter Rail system," Scott said in a statement at the time, asserting the system would be built "at no cost" to the MBTA or its customers. "While the introduction of new locomotives and new coaches will continue to improve on-time performance rates, customer service initiatives like WiFi and eTicketing make the overall commuting experience an even better one."

Pesaturo did not respond to the News Service's latest request, on Feb. 28, for the agency to voluntarily offer an update on its project.

It's Sunshine Week, a national initiative launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors "to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information." According to the society, "the weeklong celebration is held every March to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, a key advocate of the Bill of Rights. Participants have included print, broadcast and digital media outlets; government officials at all levels; schools and universities; nonprofit and civic organizations; libraries and archivists; and individuals interested in the public's right to know."