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T-Mobile steams in with WiMAX, Wi-Fi train

The rail deal

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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Nomad has yet to install complete track-side coverage. It's fixing base-stations to railway stations owned by Southern to avoid the need to pay Network Rail, which owns the lines and most of the land adjacent to them. Wallbridge reckons the company will need to install 60-odd base-stations along the route, of which 37 are now in place.

Wallbridge claims users will get access speeds of up to 256Kbps over the link, the limiting factor being the 1Mbps commercial ADSL connections between the base-stations and the internet. There are four GPRS modems in each carriage as a back-up, a technique used by other providers, such as Broadreach and Sweden's Icomera, the company behind GNER's East Coast Line Wi-Fi service.

T-Mobile's role in the Southern/Nomad operation is to provide billing and promotional services, and to sell access time. None of the companies were willing to explain how costs and revenue are shared, though that's the norm in this emerging market. In any case, revenue sharing isn't an issue for the moment: the service is being offered free of charge until June, when the network installation is scheduled to have been completed. Then, users will have to pay £5 for an hour's access, sufficient for the 55-minute journey from London to Brighton.

Performance

How well does the Brighton Express Wi-Fi service perform? To be fair, we travelled only part of the way, to Croydon, and in a carriage packed with notebook-toting journalists all eager to sample the joys of supposedly high-speed internet access. While we were able to access El Reg, and our email servers, trying to stream the most recent Hitch-hikers' Guide to the Galaxy trailer failed after the first few minutes. On the basis of this one, admittedly worse-case scenario trial, we didn't get the promised "genuine broadband experience".

Glancing at the carriages wireless control box, the Train Control Unit, we noticed how often the WiMAX connection LED was off, in turn revealing how much the four GPRS modems were needed to deliver bandwidth during the journey. The situation - and the bandwidth - should improve as Nomad adds the remaining 23 WiMAX base-stations along the line. Increasing the 6Mbps WiMAX bi-directional bandwidth used in the trial to the 32Mbps it claims the system is capable of delivering and widening the DSL backhaul pipe will help too.

Even so, T-Mobile has already had some very positive feedback from users of the trial service, it says, as has Southern Trains. Together they have done a good job with the carriage's signage to alert passengers to the presence of the service. Large signs at each door are complemented by window stickers at each table. The service is democratically offered to both First and Second Class passengers.

Adding up

The London-Brighton service has had around 135 users between 1 and 11 April. Adding a further 14 carriages to the one unit currently equipped with Wi-Fi, as Southern is already planning to do, will boost the usage figures, but it's clear it's going to take some time to recoup the costs. On average 12 people use the service each day. Assuming they pay £5 to do so, that's £60 a day. At that rate it will take over 15 years to pay for the WiMAX links and the single carriage's kit - assuming T-Mobile doesn't take its cut.

Last year, Broadreach surveyed 1600 UK rail passengers and found 78 per cent of business travellers are interested in using Wi-Fi on train journeys. A similar number said the provision of such services would persuade them to take trips by train rather than by car or plane.

More to the point, most of them are willing to pay up to £12 for the privilege, depending on the length of the journey, and that's a big motivation for TOCs to roll-out wireless internet technology. If they can stomach the up-front cost. ®

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