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Virgin Trains aims for 49Mbps broadband

The company's West Coast service is considering broadband for its trains based on WiMax rather than satellite or 3G
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Travellers on Virgin Trains' West Coast line may soon be getting Wi-Fi access with WiMax backhaul.

Nomad Digital has emerged as the preferred bidder for the project, which would involve trackside WiMax base stations, connected via DSL, placed every few miles along the route.

The WiMax signal would in turn be relayed to Wi-Fi access points on the trains to provide seamless connectivity for passengers even in tunnels or underground.

"With on-board Internet, working travellers can carry on with business as usual by staying connected while in transit," said Virgin Trains' new product development manager, Laura Hirdman, who added that passengers would also be able to take advantage of "more distracting online pursuits" such as surfing the Internet, shopping, emailing friends and family and downloading media.

Nomad Digital is the company behind a scheme already running on the Southern Trains Brighton Express route from London. Operated by T-Mobile, that service also uses WiMax for backhaul. Nomad runs similar schemes in the Netherlands and Silicon Valley.

As with the Brighton Express service, the Virgin scheme would involve WiMax coverage backed up with HSDPA for any momentary gaps that might occur, although Nomad's chief executive officer and co-founder, Graeme Lowden, told ZDNet UK that this was not likely to be a problem.

"The key things with WiMax are bandwidth and latency," Lowden said on Thursday. "Because we've been running networks on trains for a number of years now we can see the real life growth in demand for bandwidth as the appetite of the users increases rapidly."

Comparing Nomad's approach with that of rail company GNER, which also offers on-board broadband connectivity but based on a satellite downlink and 3G/GPRS uplink, Lowden said satellite had "a number of drawbacks with regards to the limitations on bandwidth but also latency".

"We're dealing with single-digit latency with WiMax," he added.

WiMax can theoretically provide speeds of up to 49Mbps, although in this case the DSL land connections will limit that to 2Mbps. Nomad hopes to break this bottleneck in the future through "faster DSL" or fibre.

The company is also looking to expand its networks across Europe and beyond, according to Lowden, who said the company is "working towards a bigger picture as far as rolling out and building these niche networks that communicate with trains".

Wi-Fi access has already been available at some first-class lounges on Virgin's West Coast routes, but this development would be the first time passengers would be able to get connected on board. The service provider, yet to be announced, is thought to be a major UK mobile network — charges for the service are also still to be revealed.

A spokesperson for Virgin Trains told ZDNet UK that a finalised deal with Nomad Digital was "fairly imminent" with plans for the service to initially roll out across the West Coast Pendolino train routes between London, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and North Wales. The service could be extended to Virgin's cross-country service if the company hangs on to those routes, which are currently up for re-bidding.

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