Transit officials plan to offer an incentive to lure motorists off Albuquerque's roadways and onto a new $390 million commuter rail system: free high-speed Internet service on board the passenger cars.

Giving transit customers Internet access is not a new idea in New Mexico's largest city. Commuters with computers on Albuquerque's Rapid Ride bus routes already can use laptops or PDAs to check e-mail or browse the Web. And other public transit systems are experimenting as well, mostly using grants from the Federal Transit Administration to see if putting the commuting into telecommuting really works. In the Seattle area, for instance, passengers have tested such services on bus lines, a rail route and ferries.

Should public transportation operators elsewhere be getting on board too? Based on the research so far, Internet access can turn at least some car-centric American commuters into mass transit users--if the technology works, and it's economical.

The first challenge is establishing reliable, high-speed Internet connections with moving transit vehicles. Albuquerque's Rapid Ride buses link up with networked devices mounted on traffic lights along their route. Other bus services have tried longer-range, wireless modem cards to tap into the data networks now offered by major mobile phone carriers. More innovative options are available--such as the "Floating Area Network" developed by Mobilisa Inc. of Port Townsend, which uses shore-based transmitters and antennas to relay Internet traffic across hundreds of miles of water to and from Washington state ferry boats.

With the vehicle connected, commuters use their laptops and PDAs to link to on-board WiFi routers--the same devices used to make wireless networks in homes, offices and coffee shops. Sluggish connections or dropped signals could be off-putting, especially for commuters running demanding applications, such as the virtual private networks that allow them to tap into office networks from remote locations. But vendors will squish the bugs and perfect the technology if there's a business model that justifies it.

Figuring out the market will be as big a challenge as deploying the right technology. Junxion, a Seattle company that provides tools for connecting to cellular data networks, has been involved in many of the transit tests to date, but John Daly, vice president for business development, cautions against rolling out Internet service on every vehicle. "Passenger connectivity, even as a paid service, does not justify a fleet-wide deployment," he says. "It is a nice amenity to help boost ridership in a subset of transit vehicles."

Another business issue is cost. California's Riverside County spent $47,000 last year to equip three buses on one CommuterLink bus route for its Internet test, plus another $210 a month for connectivity through a national mobile phone carrier's data network. That investment may pay off. Ridership on the CommuterLink route increased, and free WiFi was a major factor. A survey found that 43 percent of new riders were using the service--far more than the 23 percent of previous passengers. And the new riders rated WiFi access as a top reason for commuting by bus.

Those findings square with other research. A June 2005 report done for the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University estimated that offering Internet access on San Francisco Bay area commuter trains could boost ridership by 60 percent. The key, the report said, will be persuading employers to count time spent logged on while commuting as paid work time, just like traditional telecommuting.

Internet access could prove valuable enough that some riders--or their bosses--will pay for it. That's what Bay Area Rapid Transit has in mind. The San Francisco region's transportation authority is evaluating proposals for testing a for-profit Internet service for its Capitol Corridor rail line. The fee-based service would be considerably faster and more widely available than the free but limited wi-fi service already tested there. And surveys of California rail commuters found that many business riders, especially those who travel more than 80 minutes, would be willing to pay for such amenities.

The other customers who may make all of this work are the transit services themselves. They can use the same Internet connections for operational needs.

While the route is still a bit confusing, the idea of giving mass transit riders Internet access has already left the station. So sit back, log on and enjoy the ride.