Trains get satellite broadband boost

The telecoms regulator says train companies can now use the same high-speed satellite Internet uplinks as planes and ships

Ofcom on Tuesday made available a new type of spectrum licence that could allow train operators such as GNER to upgrade their on-board wireless services to two-way satellite links, similar to those already in use on aeroplanes and ships.

Wireless hot spots have become ubiquitous in city centres, but transport operators have been slower to bring wireless Internet access to passengers, partly because of the technical hurdles involved in maintaining a continuous link to a moving vehicle. Trains also need to deal with ground obstacles and tunnels.

Train operators such as GNER and Virgin have settled on solutions that combine satellite and cellular coverage, normally using satellite for the downlink and cellular services (including 3G, GPRS and GSM) for the uplink. The combination means connectivity can be maintained even in tunnels.

Plane-based systems such as the now-defunct Connexion by Boeing tend to use simpler systems based on a two-way satellite link. Previously, licensing constraints barred trains from using a satellite uplink. Ofcom has now lifted that constraint, creating a new licence category for train-based systems.

"Currently, some train operators are using stationary satellite uplinks mounted at the side of the track. The new licence class allows them to have an on-board satellite uplink," said an Ofcom spokeswoman.

Ofcom has had licence types for planes and ships for some time, but created the new type because of the increasing use of wireless links on trains.

The licence applies to the 14-14.25GHz band. Trials using this band on train systems have already been carried out in some European countries, Ofcom said. Some existing train satellite systems use other bands — for instance, Icomera, which provides GNER's system, uses the 1.2168 GHz frequency.

Details of the new licence type can be found on Ofcom's Web site, here and here.

GNER launched its on-board Wi-Fi service commercially in July.

Last month Korean Air said it would sue Boeing over the failure of its in-flight broadband venture, Connexion by Boeing. The Korea Times said the airline had spent $400,000 equipping 29 planes to be able to offer in-flight broadband connectivity and had been planning to roll out the service to another 25 aircraft by 2008.

Boeing announced the closure of Connexion earlier in August, saying there was little demand for the service.