Offering free Wi-Fi on Metra trains is proving to be an elusive and time-consuming goal.
In 2011, Metra administrators asked wireless providers to submit proposals to provide Wi-Fi at no cost to the agency. The hope was that companies could make money through advertising, but that search came up empty.
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"Identifying a vendor to provide Wi-Fi at no risk to Metra was a little problematic," Deputy Executive Director for Administration Alex Wiggins said at a Thursday meeting.
Now administrators say it makes more sense to pay a consultant to develop the new service.
Metra board directors approved a $250,000 contract with Xentrans Inc. to identify what's needed in terms of technology to install Wi-Fi on trains and how much it will cost.
The work should take four months. Once that's complete, Metra directors will decide whether to pursue a Wi-Fi pilot project on one of its train lines.
The hope is to install Wi-Fi at minimal cost to riders and the agency, but that may not be possible, officials admitted.
One problem is that with 700 daily trains and 11 train lines in the six-county region, it's a big area to cover.
Once the Wi-Fi goes live, users will expect a consistent stream of information with the capability of downloading video and audio, which means it's important to get it right the first time, Wiggins said.
"If we do proceed we want a system that's fast and reliable ... people want to listen to Pandora and watch YouTube -- that draws on bandwidth," he said.
One local transit agency that has successfully provided free Wi-Fi for passengers is Pace, which offers the service on its popular Bus on Shoulder service along I-55.
Also, Metra planners said they intend to ask companies to bid on a contract to provide mobile ticketing and onboard sales in February. The move is part of an effort to provide a regional fare system allowing riders to use credit, debit or prepaid cards to travel seamlessly between Metra, the CTA and Pace.
The universal fare policy was part of a state law enacted in 2011. Legislators also required Metra to offer free Wi-Fi to passengers by Jan. 1, 2012, however, it stipulated this only was mandatory if the service could be provided at no cost to the agency.