UK is first class for train Wi-Fi in Europe

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On-train wireless internet connectivity is growing fast in Europe - but even faster in the UK, which now has more than 2,000 Wi-Fi equipped carriages.

This supposedly makes passengers far more productive during their waking hours, much to the annoyance of rail operator HS2.

Tech consultancy BWCS has been looking at the figures, and reckons on-train connectivity will be worth €80m by 2021, compared to the paltry €47m it was worth last year, but it’s the UK leading the way as travellers spurn expensive cellular networks to hook up to in-carriage wireless.

Our nearest competitor Germany has, we're told, 911 Wi-Fi equipped carriages, and Italy only 995, but that's still well-connected compared to the French total of 416. Most passengers are getting access for free too: only 17 per cent of carriages are billing for access, and even then it's generally only the proles (standard class) who have to pay.

That's bad news for High Speed Rail though, as the justification for HS2 (the £17bn high-speed London/Birmingham connection) assumes all travellers are entirely unproductive during transit and thus the 30 minute reduction in travelling time benefits the economy.

Should those passengers start doing useful things in the train then the numbers fall apart, so best stick to LOL Cats and Facebook updating whilst being whisked between the cities.

On-train Wi-Fi in the UK is generally back-hauled to the track side using proprietary infrastructure, often WiMAX, with ADSL connections then routing the traffic back to a proxy to make everything appear seamless. WiMAX is well suited to the speed of a thundering train, though 3G might work fine for much of the UK's aging rolling stock.

In Germany they can use LTE, as the local networks having started deploying 4G connectivity, but that applies to the passengers too. For reading email, 3G connectivity isn't bad from a train in the UK, as long as it's not going too fast and one doesn't venture too far from the capital. LTE should eventually make on-train Wi-Fi redundant as it's just as fast, but it will be a while before it's just as cheap as well.

So while Blighty might be lagging behind in 4G, and unable to get fibre optics into more than a handful of homes, at least it can be proud that it has more Wi-Fi-equipped trains than anyone else in Europe. ®

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