Virgin takes Wi-Fi up the west coast

Broadreach is working hard with Virgin to develop high-speed wireless networks for rail passengers on the west coast train line, as GNER races to bring Wi-Fi to the east coast line

Passengers on Virgin trains should be able to get limited high-speed wireless Internet access in their carriage by the end of this year, as the race to Wi-Fi enable the UK's railways heats up.

Wi-Fi operator Broadreach Networks is installing wireless hot spots at 20 stations along Virgin's west coast main line, and is already working on ways of extending the system to allow wireless access on trains near these stations.

Broadreach's rollout up the west coast network follows successful trials at Euston Station, and should mean that travellers at key stations such as Crewe, Preston and Glasgow Central can access the Internet wirelessly while waiting for their train from this autumn.

These networks will extend to the track, so passengers will also be able to get Wi-Fi when their train is standing at the platform. According to Magnus McEwen-King, chief executive of Broadreach, this is just part one of an ambitious plan where trains begin offering full on-board Wi-Fi sometime in 2004.

"In phase two, we will increase the size of the hotspots using directional antennas. The third phase is to offer full on-board Wi-Fi," McEwen-King told ZDNet UK.

These directional antennas will stretch Wi-Fi hot spots across several kilometres of track, giving passengers a larger window of opportunity to surf the Web and download or upload emails.

Virgin is one of Broadreach's shareholders, and the wireless operator has created a new team specifically to address the problems that must be overcome before trains can offer functional wireless networks.

It is likely that Broadreach's on-board Wi-Fi system will use a satellite connection to provide downstream bandwidth, and either GPRS or 3G to take network traffic off the train. This means it will be an asymmetric connection, like ADSL, with users offered a faster connection downstream than upstream.

This is suitable for applications such as Internet browsing, where surfers only need to send a small amount of data in order to request a Web page, but less suitable for video-conferencing, for example.

Probably the stickiest issue to overcome before uninterrupted on-train Wi-Fi is a reality is the problem of tunnels. It's one that Broadreach is pragmatic about.

"There will be limitations -- anyone who says they will offer a seamless service is lying, at least in the short term."

"With tunnels, we'll drop the signal at one side, and pick it up again on the other," said McEwen-King, pointing out that only a few passengers -- such as someone on a video-conferencing call -- would be seriously disrupted by this, as people already accept that their mobile phones don't receive a signal underground.

Train operator GNER won plenty of publicity earlier this month when it said it was planning to offer on-board wireless broadband access service to passengers using its east coast line, in partnership with Swedish company Icomera.

McEwen-King admitted he was "a bit peeved" by the attention GNER garnered, as he believes Broadreach and Virgin are actually further down the line in their work with train Wi-Fi systems, but added that the development was also good for the whole industry.

"The more train companies who realise they should offer this, the better," said McEwen-King.

With its transport team "out and about talking to everyone in the industry", it's possible that Broadreach could soon be helping several train operators to Wi-Fi enable their carriages.