Online and on track

The train with broadband wireless has been delayed. But thankfully, it seems, for not very long.

GNER, the rail operator for the east coast mainline, has recently begun trialling on-board broadband wireless Internet access. The test service is free to first-class passengers and uses a combination of satellite, digital cellular (GSM) and GPRS (general packet radio services) networks to provide data transfer at up to 2Mbit/s.

The system works by connecting users to GNER’s on-board server via a wireless hotspot in the carriage. The server, in turn, manages the Internet connection. As well as sharing out the bandwidth, this enables passengers to stay online, even when the remote Internet signal is poor, for example in a tunnel.

The idea is new to the UK, but, unsurprisingly, the Scandinavians got there first. Trains running between some Swedish cities already have the system on board. The technology company behind the Swedish system, Icomera, is also behind the GNER trial.

It is not clear how long the GNER trial will last for, and when there will be a wider rollout. Nor is there any information on pricing. Wireless project manager Martin Shaw says that the rail operator is looking at up to 14 different models, including pricing per hour or per journey. GNER is also considering extending wireless access to standard class passengers.

The company also wants to see interoperability between fixed-location hotspot providers and its onboard service, as well as interoperability between train operators. So far, no other UK train operators have introduced onboard Internet access, although several, including Eurostar and Virgin Trains, would seem to be obvious candidates, given their high numbers of business users.

With just over a month of the tests behind it, GNER maintains that passenger feedback has been positive. The main criticism, according to Shaw, relates to the limited number of trains with access on board. At present, the service is available on three trains a day.

But the service has met with criticism too. One analyst, Butler Group’s Richard Edwards, tried the service during the first days of its trial, in December 2003. He says he was disappointed with connection speeds, which were almost half those he had expected from a satellite link.

But GNER has checked the service performance during Edwards’ journey and says there was a problem with the communications satellite that meant data could only be sent and received through the conventional cellular network. The operator says it was a “rare occasion”.

Edwards, however, has another, wider complaint. He suggests that GNER ought to focus on building more Wifi ‘hotspots’ in stations rather than installing high-speed Internet access on its rolling stock. It is true that GNER is setting up its own trackside wireless hotspots, starting at London Kings Cross. But others are pulling ahead. Virgin Trains, for example, introduced hotspots at London Euston, Manchester Piccadilly and Birmingham International stations in 2003.

GNER’s Shaw accepts that Wifi in stations would be useful, but maintains that there is a strong case for connections on the train too. And this is no mean technical feat. Apart from the obvious obstacles to maintaining an Internet connection, such as tunnels, bridges and cuttings, standard wireless technologies were not designed for use in trains. Since metal structures reflect radio waves, a train carriage makes a fairly convincing ‘Faraday Cage’ for blocking out radio signals.

The sheer speed of trains is another problem. GSM networks were not designed with even the relatively pedestrian speeds of the UK rail network in mind. When designers put together GSM cell sites and developed the technology for seamlessly transferring calls between them, they based their assumptions on the maximum road speed limit of 70mph. This is one reason why dropped calls are more common on high-speed trains. That is why satellite-based web access remains the best option for use on trains.

For GNER, however, the real challenge is likely to be to find a business model that justifies its investment.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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