Wi-Fi rollout on trains needs passenger push

Wireless Internet access on trains is going to be big - but only if the train operators can be convinced it's a good idea

The worldwide market for high-speed wireless networks on trains will be worth many hundreds of millions of pounds within five years, even though railway operators may be slow to embrace Wi-Fi, according to industry analysts.

Research group BWCS estimated this week that by 2008 rail travellers will be spending £266m per year on on-board wireless LAN hot spot services -- using them to send and receive email, surf the Web, play games and to access travel services.

This estimate represents a slight downward revision on earlier forecasts that BWCS presented at The Wireless LAN Event in London back in May. This is because the company now believes that railway operators will roll out mobile Wi-Fi hot spots at a slower rate than first thought.

"The primary reasons for our conservatism are that although one European train operator has deployed a service and another is committed to a trial -- and several are making interested noises -- the railway industry is notoriously slow and cautious with respect to signing off on new projects like this," Peter Kingsland, BWCS wireless analyst, told ZDNet UK News, adding that experience of the vendors to date supports this view.

Both GNER and Virgin are currently involved in trials of on-board train Wi-Fi, and services are expected to launch next year.

According to Kingsland, though, there are several reasons why widespread deployment of Wi-Fi across the industry will be a protracted process. One is that train operators will be reluctant to upgrade existing carriages, and would prefer to deploy Wi-Fi when they get new rolling stock.

There is also the fact that, in BWCS's opinion, there is little pent-up demand from travellers for the service.

"The one thing that will make train operating companies prioritise a new service is if passengers demand it and that just isn't happening with Wi-Fi yet. There is a lot of market education still to do," said Kingsland.