Bus riders can now log onto the Internet on 78 transbay buses in the Bay Area's first major free offering of Wi-Fi on public transit, AC Transit announced Wednesday.

The service is unique among large bus systems in the nation, AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson said.

While many commuter rail systems, such as Gilroy-to-San Francisco Caltrain and the Auburn-to-San Jose Capitol Corridor, have spent years experimenting with systems to provide seamless wireless Internet for passengers, the concept is fairly new for buses.

"On the bus side, it's been a little slow to take off," said Craig Settles, the Oakland-based author of the 2006 book "Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless."

While commuters can sit for an hour or more on trains, bus commutes tend to be much shorter and less convenient for flipping open the laptop, waiting for it to boot up and, worse yet, making sure it shuts down properly when the bus arrives at the destination.

A trip from Fremont to downtown San Francisco takes an hour and 15 minutes, however, and "for that kind of commuting, this makes more sense," Settles said.

The system, which is run by AT&T Wi-Fi, was set up with a $340,000 grant from the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency, which also covers two years of access fees, Johnson said. The grant is intended to improve the commuting experience and attract more riders, whose additional fares should more than pay for the system, the agency has calculated.


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AC Transit began testing the system five months ago and in February offered service on itsfirst transbay bus. The system has gradually expanded to include other buses and now covers some buses on all 26 transbay lines, which originate in East Bay communities from Richmond to Fremont.

While AC Transit makes its free Wi-Fi debut, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system is attempting to catch up.

The system is now testing out Wi-Fi between San Francisco's Embarcadero and Oakland's City Center stations. If the technology works, BART officials plan to ink a deal with a provider to bring Wi-Fi to the whole system.

BART, however, would eventually require users to pay for subscriptions, which would cover the cost of building the system.

Contact Erik Nelson at enelson@angnewspapers.com or (510) 208-6410. Read his Capricious Commuter blog at InsideBayArea.com.