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Good Wi-Fi on most of the fleet is the Pace suburban bus system’s best-kept secret

A Pace bus at the 95th Street Red Line station. Photo: Jeff Zoline

When you ride a Pace suburban bus, chances are pretty good that you’ll be able to connect to free, decent quality Wi-Fi -- assuming you know it’s there.

Until 2017, Wi-Fi was limited to Pace’s premium commuter express routes, which use larger, more coach-style buses. So when the transit agency announced that the Pulse Arterial Rapid Transit buses would have it as well, it was genuinely a big deal. So was the announcement that the Wi-Fi will be available on the express bus routes launched as part of the late-2016 I-90/Janes Addams Memorial Tollway service expansion.

Since then, Pace has been quietly adding Wi-Fi to regular bus routes as well. As Maggie Daly Skogsbakken, the transit agency’s spokesperson, explained to me back in 2018, the new security cameras Pace has been installing already required wireless Internet, so Pace decided that, so long as the Wi-Fi was already there, they might as well offer it to the riders.

Almost two years later, the implementation worked out pretty decently. My work takes me all over Chicagoland, and I’ve found that, whether I’m as far southwest as Joliet, as far north as Fort Sheridan, as far west as Geneva or as far south as Glenwood, chances are pretty good that the Pace bus I'm riding on is going to have on-board Wi-Fi. And, with a few minor exceptions, the quality has been fairly consistent.

Whether the bus is speeding down the highway, crawling through traffic in, say, downtown Downers Grove, the Wi-Fi has generally worked without slowdowns or interruptions. It worked during the hottest summer and even in the middle of the Polar Vortex (and why, yes, I was one of those people who went out into the Polar Vortex on my own free will, just to see what it was like. Same here -- ed. ) Now, I’ve never tried to stream movies, or download anything bigger than a board meeting presentation, but when you want to check your e-mail, read the news, or even file a piece for Streetsblog, it’s a pretty handy thing to have.

In fact, as I’ve commented before on Twitter, one interesting side benefit of all that Wi-Fi is that major transit hubs like the Northwest Transportation Center in Schaumburg become pretty good places to do work while you wait for your particular bus.

I’ve gotten so used to having Wi-Fi available on Pace buses that I keep getting caught off-guard when one of them doesn’t have it. It tends to happen on older buses -- which makes sense, since the Wi-Fi is tied to new cameras. But it also sometimes happens on the relatively new buses, which definitely have the new cameras. And there are still parts of the system that don’t have Wi-Fi period - like most McHenry County routes, which use smaller buses.

There is also the matter of consistency when it comes to getting online. The beauty of onboard Wi-Fi on Amtrak, CoachUSA and Greyhound is that the network name and the login process are the same no matter what train or bus you’re on. But on Pace sometimes you need to go through a login screen, and sometimes you don’t, and each bus has a different network name.

It’s kind of like on the South Shore Line, where network names end with a specific train car number, but at least on the South Shore, the part before the number is the same -- “SouthShoreWifi.” On Pace, you get several different variations. I’ve seen the networks called “FREEWIFIPACEBUS,” “Free Wifi on Pace,” “free wi fi on pace,” “free wi fi on pacebus,”  “WiFi on PACE” and, every once in a while, something out of left field, like “Wifi on Bus.”

I didn’t realize until two months ago that the number at the end of the wi-fi network name is the bus number, and you can find it right above the bus' front window. And that’s not a big deal, unless you’re at a terminal with several buses, or you got several buses passing the same intersection. If you don’t know what the numbers mean, it’s pretty easy to connect to the wrong bus’ Wi-Fi and then wonder why the heck the Wi-Fi you were connected to suddenly disappears when the other bus pulls away.

But what puzzles me most about Pace's Wi-Fi service is that Pace still doesn’t really advertise it. While the premium route schedules in print and online mention Wi-Fi, the schedules for local routes don’t. When the Pulse Milwaukee line debuted, all the press releases and statement touted the Wi-Fi as one of the big new features designed to meet the riders’ need to stay connected, and I wound up explaining to my less transit-savvy reporters that the feature isn’t as unusual as it used to be.

I know I’m not the only one who is using on-board Wi-Fi. But I do have to wonder how many riders have no idea it’s even there.

Maybe when Pace’s Wi-Fi expansion reaches every single bus in the fleet, the agency will do a big announcement.  But for the time being, it is a nice under-the-radar perk that you should take advantage of next time you ride Pace.

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