Wi-Fi trains are steaming down the track

If 'intelligent spoofing' can solve the problem caused by tunnels, hundreds of trains could soon include wireless networks

By the end of this year, at least three UK train operators should be offering wireless Internet access on their rolling stock, letting mobile workers surf the Web and access corporate IT systems while on the train.

Wireless operator Broadreach Networks has signed deals with Virgin and four other unnamed rail operators to install wireless hot spots on their trains. Magnus McEwan-King, Broadreach's founder, is confident that at least two of these operators will have launched commercial services by the end of this year.

With GNER already rolling out Wi-Fi trains through a partnership with Icomera -- one of Broadreach's rivals -- wireless trains should soon be appearing all across the UK railway network.

"You have to wirelessly enable every carriage in a train, and every train in a fleet," McEwan-King said on Thursday. "That's the only way this market will succeed."

Earlier this summer, Broadreach secured several million pounds of additional funding from its investors, which include BT, Intel and Virgin. According to Broadreach, this cash could be used to Wi-Fi-enable "between 45 and 50 percent" of UK rolling stock.

"We've got enough cash to upgrade 700 trains," McEwan-King explained.

Virgin is already installing Wi-Fi networks within its Pendolino locomotives, while GNER has offered wireless services on some of its trains for several months. Wi-Fi rollout on trains is a slow business, though, as they have to be taken out of service while the upgrades take place.

Sceptics have suggested that wireless networks won't work on trains, because of the difficulty in maintaining a link to the Internet. As anyone who has tried to use a mobile phone on a train can testify, tunnels and deep cuttings mean that there are many places on the rail network where wireless connectivity is likely to be poor or non-existent.

Broadreach is using a system created by Pointshot Wireless, a US technology company. An access point is installed in each carriage, linked to one main transmitting and receiving device. This will provide a broadband connection, linking via mobile phone base stations or a satellite to an Internet gateway.

GPS will be used to track each train. This will help the system to choose the best connectivity method at each stage of the journey. For example, Orange's 3G network coverage might be better than Vodafone's in a certain location, so the connection would jump between the two before the signal degraded.

When trains enter tunnels, though, neither mobile networks nor satellite will be within reach. McEwan-King says that Pointshot incorporates an "intelligent spoofing" system that will create the illusion that the connection hasn't broken for up to 60 seconds.

Although this won't work for VPN connections, it should mean that most Web applications will keep running and won't have to be restarted.

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