Wi-Fi gets on the right track

Arrving on platform one, the mobile hotspot

Analysis What sort of investment in public transport would make you swap from plane to long haul trains or from car to bus or commuter train? asks Rob Bamforth of Bloor Research.

How about fast mobile data access using Wi-Fi? Mobile users at mobile hotspots. It might be a challenge delivering high bandwidth networking to a moving target - both technical and financial - but at least there's a sitting audience.

For the would-be 'railwarrior', the solution could be at hand, at least if the trial being undertaken by UK train operator, Great North Eastern Railways (GNER) is a success.

GNER, which operates services from London to Scotland along the East Coast main line, are partnering with Swedish company Icomera to provide real-time high speed Internet access to trains. The service will be available to an unlimited number of First and Standard Class passengers, and staff. Icomera, with its Wireless Onboard Internet product, already have experience of running a commercial Wi-Fi service on trains in Scandinavia.

Given the large number of travelers already using laptops on trains, the addition of Wi-Fi makes the travel time even more productive, and provides something that road travel can not. GNER has apparently solved the problem of delivering uninterrupted connection while the train travels at high speeds. Icomera's Wireless Onboard Internet solution provides connection using a combination of GSM and satellite, and automatically selects channels using the most effective multiple combinations to provide 100 per cent access even at speeds over 300kmph.

Subject to the successful outcome of the three-month trial, GNER plans to fit satellite-receiving equipment first to its ten high-speed diesel locomotives and then, early next year, to its fleet of 30 electric engines. GNER plan to be able to offer connectivity all the way along the route from London to Inverness, longer than most laptop batteries, so this could be further encouragement for suppliers of handheld devices capable of lasting all day on a battery.

GNER recognises that their business is moving people from place to place. It isn't aiming to make money from being a Wi-Fi hotspot, - it hopes his new service will encourage more people to travel by train rather than taking the car or a plane.

There are solutions appearing for delivering Wi-Fi access to smaller commercial vehicles too, such as buses, so if governments are looking for ways to encourage more use of public transport, they could look into the possibilities of subsidising services like wireless network access. It's not possible to make a busy bus or train as personal as a car, but they can become a 'vehicle' for aggregating network connectivity.

Trains would need to become more laptop friendly outside First Class - GNER needs to think about installing power points, and not the proprietary sort located in aircraft cabins that force the would-be airborne computer user to shell out £100 or more just to spend seven hours watching DVDs.

Perhaps wireless handhelds would make more sense for 'railwarriors', and 'bus-battlers'. Either way, the value for the technology-toting traveler would be clear. At least they could do something other than playing games on their mobile phone...

...and there's also the prospect of network traffic reducing vehicular traffic. ®

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