All aboard for Wi-Fi trains?

The railway industry is keen to give customers access to high-speed wireless broadband, but there are plenty of hurdles to overcome
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor

Rail companies may soon be Wi-Fi enabled, giving laptop and PDA users the chance to surf and email on the train.

The Wireless LAN Event heard on Thursday that several companies in the railway sector are interested in the possibility of implementing wireless networks in trains, with some trials already planned or underway.

However, there is a phalanx of formidable obstacles to overcome, which could mean that widespread Wi-Fi rollout across the rolling stock could be 20 or more years away.

Wi-Fi on trains has significant commercial potential, according to Graham Wilde, director of research group BWCS. Wilde told an audience at The Wireless LAN Event that the total European market could be worth nearly £400m a year by 2007. Wi-Fi is already being rolled out at many of the UK's major railway stations by Megabeam -- the next challenge is to get it into the carriages themselves.

BWCS recently conducted a survey to find how much interest there is in Wi-Fi on trains. Most of the passengers who were carrying laptops said they would be very keen to use a high-speed wireless network if one were available, with many saying they would even be interested in a slower dial-up connection.

Those surveyed said they would welcome the opportunity to access the Internet and their corporate network, to send and receive email, and to check travel information. Gaming was also popular, although when BWCS probed a little deeper they found that the average train passenger probably isn't a fan of shoot-'em-ups.

"People quite liked the ides of playing games verses other people on the train, but when you asked which games they'd like to play, the favourites turned out to be chess and crosswords. It looks like there aren't many Doom players," said Wilde.

BWCS found that most potential Wi-Fi users said they would be prepared to pay up to £5 for their wireless access. "You can probably charge twice that, though, because there's nowhere else they can go," Wilde explained, pointing out that the same rationale is responsible for the infamous £15 breakfasts that some train operators offer.

Given current laptop take-up, the UK's train Wi-Fi market is worth about £6m this year. BWCS estimates this will rise to £47m by 2007, with the overall European market then being worth £394m.

With Wi-Fi hot spots springing up across Europe, BWCS's research should give operators a clear green light to implement wireless networks for their customers.

But there are a lot of problems to overcome, the most significant of which is probably managing to link the train's wireless network to the Internet.

"Getting a signal on and off a moving train is pretty tough," Wilde said. He explained that several technologies could be used, such as satellite, GPRS, a wireless link running at 3.4GHz, or even 802.11b itself.

A mixture of several of these technologies would be the best solution, but even then the presence of tunnels is a major handicap -- as anyone who has tried to make a mobile phone call from a train can testify.

Wilde suggested that, given the problems with maintaining a constant high-speed connection to and from a fast-moving train, the solution could be to just have Wi-Fi links at stations. This "pseudo realtime" service would let people upload and download emails, but would be less suited to Web surfing. Wilde explained that Wi-Fi would be useful to the train operators themselves, letting them set up voice over IP services and also perform credit card sales wirelessly.

But, given the fragmented state of the UK's railway industry, Wi-Fi operators would have to negotiate with many different companies if they wanted to offer a national service.

These train service operators are also all on fixed-term contracts with no guarantee of renewal -- meaning they have little interest in implementing technology that would only pay back over several years, as they might have lost their franchise before then.

Installing Wi-Fi networks across a whole fleet of carriages would also be a mammoth undertaking, and Wilde admitted that it could take another 25 years before Wi-Fi services are available across the UK's train network.

Discover the latest developments in Wi-Fi, 3G, GPRS and other cutting-edge wireless technologies at ZDNet UK's Wireless News Section.

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