BETWEEN TRACY AND STOCKTON - The county landscape rushed past the windows of the ACE train Thursday afternoon as commuters heading home from jobs in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley chatted with fellow passengers, listened to music or typed away on their laptops.
A few of the laptop users checked e-mail or kept working, tapping into the Internet through wireless services provided by cellular phone companies. But cell phone towers and the signals they transmit can be few and far between in the sometimes hilly terrain traversed by the Altamont Commuter Express.
Man-made terrain blocked the signal to Steve Rodriguez's laptop as the train pulled into the downtown Stockton station. Rodriguez, an information technology manager, said he can still get a lot of work done during his commute, but if ACE offered broadband Wi-Fi access on his train, he would have more options on what he could do to get work done.
"If it works in an airplane, I can't see how it can't work on a train," he said.
It does, according to ACE officials, saying that after six years since the first attempt to bring Wi-Fi to ACE, they have figured out a way to make it work.
When ACE first rolled out trains equipped with Wi-Fi in 2003, it was a landmark occasion. It was touted as being the first passenger train in the country to offer Wi-Fi. But service was spotty. Even when the service was available, riders complained about the slow connection when too many people tried to access the Internet at once.
"I don't think technology was really ready to handle Wi-Fi on the train," said D'Andre Berry, a spokesman for the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, which owns and operates ACE.
There are other factors, too. ACE runs on Union Pacific tracks, and the commuter rail company couldn't install trackside equipment on the Union Pacific right of way, according to ACE. So it had to find a way to put all the equipment on the train.
ACE began working with Hobnob Inc. in 2008 and let ACE passengers test drive the new technology earlier this year. It went well, and now Wi-Fi is available on one car on one train, according to ACE.
It's the ACE03 train in the morning ACE06 on the way back to Stockton. It would have been on the Thursday afternoon train, but the one car has been in the shop for routine - not Internet-related - maintenance, Berry said.
ACE intends to expand the service and will continue monitoring use to determine where best to locate the next expansion, he said.
The equipment costs ACE $11,000 per car, and there is a monthly management cost of $1,800, plus about $450 a month for data cards.
For riders, the service is free.
ACE is using technology that aggregates signals from various sources, including the cellular providers, said Aron Hall, Hobnob's CEO and founder. "And we put it all together in one big pipe."
Connection is faster where signals overlap, so it does slow down along a roughly two-mile stretch through the pass, he said.
More than 99 percent of the route is covered with high-speed networking, but there's a 3/4-mile tunnel where signals can't reach the train, he said.
Approval from Union Pacific is required to install a transmitter inside the tunnel.
This is the company's first train, but it has experience hooking up Wi-Fi on corporate shuttles, Hall said.
Riders can use the ACE Wi-Fi to make secure connections, too, he said. "It is more secure than just your standard hot spot."
Rodriguez, the IT manager living in Stockton, said the Wi-Fi on the train was fast and reliable during the test run earlier this year.
Before packing up his laptop on Thursday, he said he'd been taking ACE for four years, and he's been able to spend less time in the office and sitting in traffic because of it.
"I'd still be on the road at this time," he said then walked off the train.
Contact reporter Zachary K. Johnson at (209) 546-8258 or firstname.lastname@example.org.