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Wi-Fi to ride the rails

Wireless access to networks has already made its way onto planes, and if Canadian start-up PointShot has its way, trains are the next stop.

Wireless access to networks has already made its way onto planes, and if Canadian start-up PointShot has its way, trains are the next stop.

PointShot Wireless on Monday will announce a test with Altamont Commuter Express Rail to make Wi-Fi access available on the California rail operator's trains. The test will begin in mid-September and last three months. Train travelers will have free access to the Internet through PointShot's servers, which will be stored on the train. The route runs from Stockton, Calif., to San Jose, Calif. Passengers will only need a notebook computer or a handheld with the ability to connect to Wi-Fi networks.

Ottawa, Canada-based PointShot plans to sell its RailPoint product to service providers, and it is in talks with several to be the partner for the test, according to its chief executive, Shawn Griffin. Pricing for the RailPoint product has not been determined. The company is also in talks with the California Department of Transportation to install a similar service on its trains, according to people familiar with the plans.

The experiment underscores the popularity of Wi-Fi technology and may be the most appropriate setting for it to shine. Some airlines have also installed wireless networks in their planes, allowing passengers to access the Internet.

"Adding connectivity to trains is almost a no-brainer," said Keith Waryas, an analyst with research firm IDC. He predicted that trains would prove to be a better medium than airplanes for attracting a large pool of service-using passengers.

"You've got captive business users who want connectivity," he said.

Altamont expects 25 percent to 30 percent of its passengers to use the service.

The service will use a satellite broadband connection to deliver content and a cellular connection to send requests for information. This will involve partnerships with multiple network carriers as well as government agencies, which could mean added red tape.

"These guys aren't known for great customer service," Waryas said, referring to the agencies.

PointShot is not initially looking for a cut of the revenue generated from monthly service fees, according to Griffin. Carriers will determine the fees, but Griffin expects them to be competitive with what is currently being offered in coffee shops and airports. Daily subscriptions for hot spot access are running up to $10, and monthly fees are between $20 and $40.