Wednesday, May 14, 2008


There has been an ongoing discussion within the Irish blogger community recently on the subject of public wifi internet access on trains.
There is a growing demand for this type of service and the provision of it will certainly get more bums on train seats and off car seats. This in turn would lead to lower car usage resulting in lower carbon emisions, surely something that the government should support? I for one would be inclined to take the train rather than drive if it meant that I could sit and work while traveling.
Irish Rail doesn't think that this is a viable option and states the following in it's FAQ:

"Iarnród Éireann (IÉ) feels that it wouldn’t be in the public or the
company’s best interest to install the current wireless technologies on
its fleet for customer use due to the limited lifespan of said
technologies. Anything we install now is likely to be completely
redundant within five years.

We feel customers would be better supported by obtaining their own
wireless solutions, such as those provided by the mobile providers (3G
and GPRS/EDGE ). 

IÉ is hoping that near-future new technologies such as WiMax and
other long range wireless tech will make the idea of onboard solutions
redundant.  We will continue to monitor the speed of advance of such
technologies and if we deem that change is not occurring quickly enough
we may reconsider the situation."

Now this is clearly a cop-out. Not installing a service because it "is likely to be completely redundant within five years"? Nonsense, for one the market share of wifi-client devices is still growing year on year. These devices will still be around in five years time and people will still be using them.WiFi is still the most convenient and costs effective solution for mobile internet access and it will stay that way for a good while to come. Also not providing a service because it might need to be replaced by something else in five years time just doesn't make sense. The low cost of providing wifi access in trains puts it on par with such things as keeping the toilets clean. Now surely they will not stop cleaning the toilets just because it might have to be done again tomorrow?
Passing the buck to 3G and GPRS/EDGE services also shows to indicate that no reserach has been done to support this statement. Conor O'Neill recently documented the huge gaps in coverage for these services. Hoping for Wimax to solve the problem is like kneeling down and praying in front of an oncoming tsunami. It might make you feel better but it won't change reality. While Wimax is a very "good technology" it is not as good as the media has repeatedly hyped it up to be and it is still far, far away from becoming a consumer end technology. When Wimax networks would become more common in Ireland it would be a perfect backhaul medium for local WiFi networks in trains.

It is not like this hasn't been done before. Irish Rail clearly has not looked beyond the Irish sea when considering offering public WiFi access. This article in the International Herald Tribune gives a good overview of what has been happening in this field:

"Train operators across Britain and the Continent have been
accelerating the rollout of onboard Wi-Fi systems, allowing travelers
to prepare for meetings, download video clips or catch up on their
e-mail - sometimes while zipping through the countryside at 300
kilometers, or 190 miles, an hour.

While some railway companies see Wi-Fi as a new source of revenue
for themselves or for the technology companies that run the systems for
them, others see it as a service or marketing perk.

"It's a key tool that we use to compete with the airlines," said
John Gelson, spokesman for National Express East Coast, a British train
operator that has one of the largest on-the-go Wi-Fi systems, in 43
trains that ply a 950-kilometer route between London and Inverness,
Scotland, via Edinburgh."

There you go; in one fell statement. People want it, people will use it and it IS possible. Also it will increase the number of people using the train and these are also quite often the people purchasing first-class or premium price tickets. All this will lead to increased revenue for the Rail operator.
5 minutes of research shows that the following public transport operators are offering public WiFi access:
  • Isle of Wight Ferries
  • Some Stagecoach
    services in Scotland
  • Certain bus routes in Wales
  • Scottish
    Citylink routes
  • Glasgow flyer shuttles
  • Certian National Express
    routes in the UK
  • Some trains & buses in Helsinki
  • GNER
    trains across the UK
  • National Express East Coast (UK)
  • Deutsche Bahn (Germany)
  • Thalys, which runs high-speed trains linking Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne
  • SNCF (France)
  • Heathrow Express
  • Amtrak
All of these operators have successfully deployed public WiFi using a variety of backhaul methods (3G, satellite, wimax etc.).
The user demand is clearly illustrated by these comments on Twitter. People want it and if it's not available they are clearly annoyed. The increased availability of WiFi enabled phones, Internet laptops and small notebooks as well as the ever growing share of user generated Internet content only supports the argument.
Pratically it is no great feat to install WiFi networks on trains. The main issue is the backhaul connectivity and even for that there are a number of solutions. A combination of these through redundancy combined with content caching should overcome all but the most obscure of problems. Signal propagation within the train is also no big issue even in spite of the large amounts of metal surfaces causing interference. This can be overcome by a properly carried out site survey, a sufficient number of WiFi AP's/hotspots and proper radio-planning.

Another issue to consider is that this WiFi network, through the use of a captive portal solution, can be used for more than providing "plain vanilla" Internet access. The portal can be used to provide public service information, updates on travel times and delays, connecting trains (and other modes of public transport) destinations etc. It can also be used to offer VOIP services and as a means of communication for Irish Rail staff.

All this does not have to come at a huge cost to Irish Rail; I have stated before that (pending certain conditions) that AirAppz is offering to install a WiFi service in most, if not all trains throughout Ireland at NO COST to Irish Rail. The ball is in Irish Rails' court now....     

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