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Photos: Road testing Wi-Fi at 200mph

High-speed French railroads are testing high-speed Wi-Fi access. Here's what happened to a Silicon.com reporter traveling eastbound from Paris.
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By Andy Smith on
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1 of 13 Andy Smith/ZDNet
French train operator SNCF is running a trial of a Wi-Fi Internet service onboard three TGV trains that travel eastbound from Paris via the Gare de l'Est station.

Photo credits: Natasha Lomas, silicon.com

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TGV passengers on the Wi-Fi-equipped trains can use the onboard internet service for free at present--both in First class (pictured) and Second class coaches.

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Passengers with their own Wi-Fi-enabled laptops (or smart phones) can get internet access during their journey at 2Mbps download and 512Kbps upload rates. The system, which is still in a test phase, only supports 50 users per train at present--or around 15 to 20 per cent of the total passengers per train.

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The onboard Wi-Fi system delivers connectivity via a Eutelsat satellite link, seamlessly switching to wi-fi terminals for coverage in areas such as tunnels or stations where the satellite antenna (pictured) loses line-of-sight contact. Orange Business Services has provided the Wi-Fi hotspots.

Photo credit: SNCF

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Here a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop has detected the onboard network: WiFi-TGV. The other wireless networks listed are local networks in and around Paris' Gare de l'Est.

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First-time users of the Wi-Fi service are asked to register via an online form before gaining unrestricted access to the internet and a multimedia portal that is regularly updated with videos, news, city guides and other content. SNCF hopes the portal will help attract passengers to use the Wi-Fi service, which is unlikely to be free to use if it is rolled out commercially.

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The portal also has real-time geolocalization data--showing the speed the train is traveling at, how far the traveler has progressed on their journey and a map of the train's current location.

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Here silicon.com reporter Natasha Lomas logs onto Google as the TGV travels east across France towards Switzerland. The train can reach a top speed of 200mph which SNCF says presented extra challenges to developing the wireless Internet access infrastructure.

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During the train trip from Paris to Basel, Switzerland, the Internet connection was not always reliable--perhaps owing to the number of laptop-wielding journalists testing it out. However, when the system was up and running it handled streaming video from YouTube and playing QuickTime movie trailers without too many hiccups.

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While it was possible to initiate a call--even a video call--the audio quality was poor and the call itself was dropped repeatedly.

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SNCF said the Internet connection is available 98 per cent of the time on the test routes--with only the crossing of the Vosges Mountains not currently available to facilitate passenger Web access.

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But a rack of servers (pictured) on board each train ensures content on the multimedia portal is accessible to passengers 100 per cent of the time.

,p> Photo credit: SNCF
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After several hours of browsing, checking e-mail, testing Skype and accessing the VPN, it's time to leave the train and take in the sights of Basel, Switzerland.

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