Tunnel Wifi Advertisement

The free WiFi in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel is no more. Readers asked us what happened, so I followed up with Metro and Sound Transit to find out.

“Our networking team reported that the equipment was past its end-of-life and was expected to be taken down after March 23rd when Metro exited the tunnel,” said Metro’s Jeff Switzer. “Unfortunately, an equipment failure on March 15th escalated the timeline by a week.”

Sound Transit is running the show now, but don’t expect the wifi to get switched back on. “The establishment of cellular and broadband data service throughout all our tunnels made it obsolete,” according to Sound Transit’s Geoff Patrick.

It’s hard to believe, but wifi came to the tunnel only in 2016. Cell service switched on a year later, after a multi-year procurement process and a few delays.

Us old folks will remember the bad old days of… err, 2015… when there was zero communication with the outside world: no real-time arrival signs, no internet, very little communication from the PA system. You’d have no idea of your bus or train was 2 minutes away or 20 without walking back up to the surface like a sucker. Good times.

Free public wifi, ubiquitous just a few years ago, unfortunately seems to be on the wane. Even deep underground systems like the Tube are getting cell service, and more and more people have generous data plans. Meanwhile, the fear of hacking and malware makes joining an unsecured hotspot a dangerous proposition.

58 Replies to “Wifi Exits the Tunnel Along With the Buses”

  1. “past its end-of-life”

    lol just say you didn’t want to pay for it, ST… Why do they always use such obviously bullshit excuses?

    1. Probably because they can. Besides, they need that money to over study alignments, pay off complaining stakeholders shaking ST down for money and of ,course, to design very wordy, very passive aggressive train ads requesting people not to use the seat for their bag. (If anyone ever reads it all).

      I’d rather they got real-time arrival boards that work (which apparently is a mysterious technology only available to almost every other metro system in the world).

      1. Funny you should mention that because ST’s inability to do real time arrival has been dismissed with equally ridiculous excuses. ST has said the screens “are severely limited and cannot accept the heavily processed data feed” – does anyone actually believe this? Maybe if they string enough technobabble together people will stop asking?

      2. You are bothered by the cutesy signs asking people to share the seats? Do you know what passive aggressive means?

        Typical Brad.

      3. @ (Another)Tom

        Yes, I do know what passive aggressive means. I just think the signs are too long and make their point indirectly. I know someone thought they were being terribly clever, but I don’t think this is effective messaging.

        I wish they just said “Seats are for butts”, not “The rumors are true! Bags don’t have butts. Crazy, right?” and on and on…


        And yes, it is typical me to not like confusing, dumb signage. Is it typical you to be passive aggressive and never get to the point?

      4. The signs are simultaneously exhortations, art, humor, and soft marketing. I think they’re great.

      5. I’m a fan of the signs too. Especially the Seat Hog.

        I’d be a bigger fan of rail cars that actually had room to stand out of the way with your bags/luggage when the available area isn’t available. Even carry-on size bags really don’t fit well under the seats.

      6. I’m with Brad. They are silly. And, no, Mike Orr, they are not art, not any more than a Pepsi ad or a mute Mariners moose. If our goal is to decorate with cheap “art”, why not just start selling ads to corporate America?

      7. I wish there were Pepsi ads and Mariners mooses (whatever those are) like this. If a comedian were to do these jokes on TV or published them in a poetry book it would be considered art. Why are they suddenly not art when ST puts them on trains? Would you rather have plain boring warnings?

      8. I saw the sign Brad is talking about today. It’s not the graphic cartoon ones but a bunch of text. I think Brad assessment on it being passive aggressive is retry accurate.

  2. It will be harder for people to ignore me in the tunnel with no internet. The Seattle freeze will thaw for a short while.

    1. “just do it” isn’t how ST operates. In order to get RTA done they’ve already told us they need to spend thousands more on studies, replace all the digital signs they just bought, and hire more engineers. And that’s just what they’ve admitted – who knows what other expense they’ll pull from their butts.

      A high school infotech class could do it in a week with nothing more than a pizza party and a Raspberry Pi.

    2. Adding real-time arrival information in the DSTT is included in ST2. Expect it by 2021 or 2024. I don’t know whether it will be programmed into the existing displays or the displays will be replaced. Probably the latter because the existing displays are 1980s technology with old protocols.

  3. I have Sprint and have never gotten a signal between UW and Pioneer Square. Are there plans for Sprint?

    1. Yeah, this is BS. I just switched away from Sprint, and with Sprint never got service in the tunnel. I relied on tunnel wifi.

      Also, people do have pay-as-you-go plans and tiered plans. They are often cheaper than monthly prepaid plans, and are a great option for visitors, lower-income folks, and kids. Those folks will now be paying to use data in the tunnel, rather than being able to rely on free wifi.

    2. As you said, limited plans are cheaper for those who don’t use their phones much. They’ve chosen those plans, and why should Sound Transit spend money to give them free wi-fi when that’s not an expectation outside the tunnels? ST should focus on putting real-time signs in the stations that lack them and in improving their accuracy, especially during unexpected delays and outages.

      1. It’s not ST’s responsibility to provide wifi in tunnels. They can wait half an hour until the leave the tunnel, or ride a bus. We should be concerned about whether the fares are affordable and equitable, not on whether the tunnels have tech amenities.

    3. Thank you! Sitting on the train I sometimes feel like I’m the only person in the whole city who uses Sprint.

  4. This seems reasonable. Tunnel wifi was dodgy on a good day anyway,. (I also remind those not involved in network work that equipment does go out of life, often this is because the manufacturer doesn’t support it anymore. Long procurement cycles **can** mean that by the time the hardware is installed, the time when it was approved was years ago…).

  5. And the Westlake customer spot will become a security outpost.

    Amenities? Real time info? This is Sound Transit.

  6. I remember those bad old days. I would take the first bus down to International District Station, so I could have enough connectivity to figure out when my train would actually arrive, and do anything else I needed to do on my phone.

    I do feel bad for people who relied on tunnel wi-fi, but it seems like an unnecessary expense in the age of high-quality, 4G LTE in the tunnels.

    1. It was an incredibly useful thing to have for those of us who can’t afford unlimited data plans. Even to just check One Bus Away to see what buses we could connect to before heading up, the tunnel wifi helped *a lot*. Add in being able to coordinate with friends or people you’re meeting up with and frankly it was a massively valuable public utility.

    2. Sounds like ST didn’t take equity issues into account. This will effect the poor disproportionately.

    3. The problem is being misdiagnosed. People are using One Bus Away because real-time signs are lacking in some stations and most bus stops. Public transit agencies should work on a solution that serves everybody, not just those with phones. People shouldn’t have to pay monopolistic data rates to a cell-provider oligarchy just to find out when their train is coming and whether it’s late. Passengers are also at fault for not announcing what OBA says to the people around them; instead everybody checks with their individual phone in parallel. That’s exactly like driving SOVs instead of getting into a bus. It wastes wireless bandwidth and increases local radiation. There’s disagreement on whether low-level wireless radiation is harmful but there’s no reason to use it excessively. It also leads to the government re-allocating spectrum from TV, broadcasting, and other efficient uses to point-to-point communication which benefits only one recipient. ST and Metro should focus on public information displays to match their public transit.

      1. I agree with you Mike about the public information displays.

        I’m not so sure about this though…

        “Passengers are also at fault for not announcing what OBA says to the people around them; instead everybody checks with their individual phone in parallel.”

    4. Here’s a simple technological solution. Can One Bus Away give voice announcements for disabled users? Most smartphones have a speakerphone, so if you combine the two then you could provide the announcements the agency isn’t doing without saying them yourself. Then we’d have the equivalent of BART’s “Train to Dublin-Pleasanton in five minutes. Train to Fremont in seven minutes.” It wouldn’t be practical at stops with a dozen routes and mostly arrivals (“I don’t want to hear that the 27 is coming when this is its second-last stop”), and OBA would have to be concise so as to not be annoying. But it might be practical.

      When I had a smartphone for a few years I did make these announcements sometimes. “131, 10 minutes. 11, 15 minutes.” Or when all buses went downtown or one route was predominant I’d just say “4 minutes”. When my last smartphone broke I got a dumbphone because it fits in my pocket better and has real buttons rather than those touchscreens. It has a minimal web browser although I’ve never used it. I’ve gone back to just checking the schedule on the bus stop, or doing without if the schedule is missing.

      1. Let’s not bombard the tunnel with even more announcement spam than it already has. A two minute warning for Link is reasonable because Link runs in the tunnel. A two minute warning for every bus route on 3rd Ave. would amount to nonstop two-minute warnings.

  7. The tube may be getting cell service, but almost every public bus I rode in the UK had WiFi, even in fairly rural parts of Wales.

    TriMet’s system for real time arrivals works ok for most purposes and even works with the 1980s era LED dot matrix displays, but it can’t see trains once they get into the tunnel. This may be a bigger issue for trying to do real time arrival in the tunnel: figuring out where the trains actually are. It would have to be tied into the signal system rather than use GPS data. It would probably take some doing to get the signal system to provide input into the GPS based system that provides the arrival information would be an interesting adventure.

    It might be possible to rig something into the “two minute” warning system. Those are probably separate from the signal system and based on the doppler effect detectors used to trigger grade crossing signals. You’d have to get that signal to the surface somehow so the GPS system would see it and think it was a ping from an actual train.

  8. I didn’t include this in the post, but I would love to find the definitive article on the rise and fall of public wifi. There was a brief moment where it was going to be the savior of the commons and democracy itself. My sense is that once cell service became good enough and cheap enough for 80% of Americans, people simply lost interest. Or maybe long-range Wi-fi like Wimax just never made the technological leap required for adoption.

    Anyway, public wifi is still a good idea in theory for the same reasons that municipal broadband or public drinking fountains or any other public good is a good idea.

    1. Seattle was going to get public wi-fi but it never really got off the ground beyond a couple pilot projects. In the end it settled for wi-fi at libraries. Then unlimited data plans became more ubiquidous and cheaper and superceded the motivation for it. It also has to do with phones getting more powerful and more data-intensive apps becoming ubiquidous. It’s one thing to have public wi-fi for text-based websites and VOIP calls, and another thing if people are streaming videos and music and using a lot of bandwidth.

      1. I believe the upgraded downtown bus shelter plan that the mayor shelved last year would have included kiosks similar to the LinkNYC pylons in New York, which provide free Wi-Fi, USB ports for charging, and a big screen for displaying weather, transit arrivals, and advertising.

      2. I think they were going to put wi-fi hotspots on electric poles. Perhaps they were going to do enhanced bus shelters too.

    2. There’s also involuntary data use. I may think I’m reading a text-based website, or watching one TV show for 30 minutes, but behind the scenes the apps are continually sending messages about my demographics, clicks, and location to somewhere continually, or sending “I’m running” messages and polling data feeds when I’m not using the data and don’t know it’s happening. Apps have gotten bloated, both for a fancy user interface and animations, and also for these involuntary messages.

    3. I wonder how much of it has to do with information security?

      Anyone with a laptop can snoop on other people connected to the same public wifi network, even if they are protected by a passphrase like some places are doing now. Or they can create a fake network impersonating the official one and use it to steal sensitive information. That’s a big privacy risk and I know people who avoid public wifi for that reason.

      1. If the WiFi network is configured correctly you cannot see or communicate with other devices on the same WiFi network.

        The WiFi spoofing issue is real, although it doesn’t really seem to be an issue at coffee shops or the library.

  9. The cell service in the tunnel works worse than the wifi did. 3 phones, 2 carriers, IOS and Android. Nothing. The buck just gets passed to Mobilitie, who assures me the equipment is in working order.

    It would have been nice of ST to fix these issues before shutting diwn what works. Unless cell service is on its way out too.

  10. Never got signal with Sprint (LG G5 & G7) or AT&T (iPhone 6S). I’m convinced they skipped the vast majority of cell bandwidths, just went with the biggest 2 or 3, and called it good enough. The issue is did Mobilitie or ST sell us short? Without the physical contract in hand, we’ll never know.

  11. The minute someone screams that it’s racist to switch it off … that no free tunnel wifi disproportionately affects people of color, the homeless, and the low income … it will get switched back on.

    Sam. Instagram Influencer.

    1. You’re definitely as clever and authentic as the average instagram influencer, I’ll give you that.

      1. Why don’t we revisit this when Sound Transit flips on the WiFi because someone “screams that it’s racist”. Until then yes, you and your strawman are objectively wrong.

  12. Wait, this had a shelf life of, what, about a year???? And now its outdated? I know technology changes fast but thats BS

    1. I don’t know for sure but usually the reason hardware passes it’s date for industrial use, in a way that is surprising to consumers, it is because:

      1) The hardware is only kept for the warranty period.

      2) The hardware is only kept while identical hardware is still manufactured to avoid integration issues.

      3) The hardware is operated by a third party with a service contract that involves installation and maintenance. If one component fails (which, in a large configuration, is very likely) the supplier may simply replace a part rather than diagnosing it. Under these circumstances it may not be possible to have a service agreement that allows for degradation of service as it may grow very complicated to define what the supplier is responsible for.

  13. Sound transit should re-install the wifi. It would be cheap, plenty of vendors to choose from – Cisco Meraki , Ubiquity, etc. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It is a nice amenity, like a coffee stand in the stations, etc.

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