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 European rail operators love Wi-Fi. They're keen on anything that encourages more
businesspeople to take the train, and wireless networking is an attractive way to provide paying
travellers with ad hoc connections to the internet and company networks. A journey's duration
becomes productive work time, whether it's part of a daily commute or a longer trip.

Connecting a carriage to the internet is not a problem. Nor is sharing that connection among the
passengers, many of whom travel with wireless-enabled laptops nowadays. The tricky part is
providing sufficient bandwidth to let them all send and receive large emails, and to surf the web,
at an acceptable speed. This is crucial - if it's too slow, they won't pay for it.

T-Mobile this week re-iterated its claim to be the first Wi-Fi hotspot provider to offer "genuine"
broadband speeds on a UK train. It compares its offering to similar services run separately by
train operators GNER and Virgin. Where they use satellite uplinks to provide connectivity when
the train is moving, T-Mobile's service, installed on Southern Trains' Brighton Express by
wireless specialist Nomad Digital, uses WiMAX, a would-be wireless standard touted for its
ability to host high-bandwidth connections.

However, WiMAX - also known, more prosaically, as 802.16-2004 - is designed with the
assumption that neither end of the connection is moving. So Nomad has had to do a little fiddling
with the technology to get it to cope with a train moving at up to 100mph, tactfully calling its
implementation "pre-standard". It also has to put its base-stations quite close together. Fixed
WiMAX links are typically intended to operate over tens of miles - the 60 mile line from London
to Brighton needs a base-station every mile or so, so the train's rooftop antenna is never much
more than half that distance from the strongest signal.

Cheap as chips?

Nomad won't say how much the network is costing - "it's cheap, very cheap", said company
Executive Chairman Nigel Wallbridge - but at around £5000 a base-station, and with 60 or so of
them along the line, it's costing Nomad and Southern £300,000 just to put WiMAX alongside the
track. Equipping each carriage with Wi-Fi access points, a WiMAX antenna, back-up GPRS
modems and the router and other equipment needed to tie them altogether runs into tens of
thousands of pounds.

And this is just one line - rolling out the service across the remaining 614km of track over which
Southern's trains operate takes the price to over £2.2m.

That's one of the chief reasons why other Wi-Fi providers with their eye on the rail business have
opted for satellite links - more expensive to install in the carriage, but more scalable as the
number of trains equipped with Wi-Fi increase. One railway Wi-Fi specialist, Broadreach
Networks, even stresses it will use any suitable technology to connect the carriage to the Internet,
from 3G mobile to WiMAX, and even Wi-Fi access points sited in stations, based on the needs
of a given roll-out. Broadreach is behind Virgin Trains' Wi-Fi service, currently being installed
on the operators' Pendolino trains.
Nomad has yet to install complete track-side coverage. It's fixing base-stations to railway
stations owned by Southern to avoid the need to pay Network Rail, which owns the lines and
most of the land adjacent to them. Wallbridge reckons the company will need to install 60-odd
base-stations along the route, of which 37 are now in place.

Wallbridge claims users will get access speeds of up to 256Kbps over the link, the limiting factor
being the 1Mbps commercial ADSL connections between the base-stations and the internet.
There are four GPRS modems in each carriage as a back-up, a technique used by other providers,
such as Broadreach and Sweden's Icomera, the company behind GNER's East Coast Line Wi-Fi

T-Mobile's role in the Southern/Nomad operation is to provide billing and promotional services,
and to sell access time. None of the companies were willing to explain how costs and revenue are
shared, though that's the norm in this emerging market. In any case, revenue sharing isn't an issue
for the moment: the service is being offered free of charge until June, when the network
installation is scheduled to have been completed. Then, users will have to pay £5 for an hour's
access, sufficient for the 55-minute journey from London to Brighton.


How well does the Brighton Express Wi-Fi service perform? To be fair, we travelled only part of
the way, to Croydon, and in a carriage packed with notebook-toting journalists all eager to
sample the joys of supposedly high-speed internet access. While we were able to access á ,
and our email servers, trying to stream the most recent 
failed after the first few minutes. On the basis of this one, admittedly worse-case scenario trial,
we didn't get the promised "genuine broadband experience".

Glancing at the carriages wireless control box, the Train Control Unit, we noticed how often the
WiMAX connection LED was off, in turn revealing how much the four GPRS modems were
needed to deliver bandwidth during the journey. The situation - and the bandwidth - should
improve as Nomad adds the remaining 23 WiMAX base-stations along the line. Increasing the
6Mbps WiMAX bi-directional bandwidth used in the trial to the 32Mbps it claims the system is
capable of delivering and widening the DSL backhaul pipe will help too.

Even so, T-Mobile has already had some very positive feedback from users of the trial service, it
says, as has Southern Trains. Together they have done a good job with the carriage's signage to
alert passengers to the presence of the service. Large signs at each door are complemented by
window stickers at each table. The service is democratically offered to both First and Second
Class passengers.

Ô ing up

The London-Brighton service has had around 135 users between 1 and 11 April. Adding a
further 14 carriages to the one unit currently equipped with Wi-Fi, as Southern is already
planning to do, will boost the usage figures, but it's clear it's going to take some time to recoup
the costs. On average 12 people use the service each day. Assuming they pay £5 to do so, that's
£60 a day. At that rate it will take over 15 years to pay for the WiMAX links and the single
carriage's kit - assuming T-Mobile doesn't take its cut.

Last year, Broadreach surveyed 1600 UK rail passengers and found 78 per cent of business
travellers are interested in using Wi-Fi on train journeys. A similar number said the provision of
such services would persuade them to take trips by train rather than by car or plane.

More to the point, most of them are willing to pay up to £12 for the privilege, depending on the
length of the journey, and that's a big motivation for TOCs to roll-out wireless internet
technology. If they can stomach the up-front cost.


The mobile operator has teamed up with Southern Trains and Nomad Systems, it said on
Wednesday. Wi-Fi access points have been installed in Southern Trains' rolling stock, letting
anyone travelling between Brighton and London with a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop or PDA get
Internet access on the move.

A free trial of the service is due to begin in early March, ahead of a commercial launch planned
for this summer.

Several other companies, such as Broadreach and Icomera, are already operating train Wi-Fi
services in the UK. T-Mobile, though, claims that it is the first 'genuine broadband' service,
because it uses WiMax as the uplink to the Internet.

WiMax gives T-Mobile a two-way connection of up to 32Mbps, which should be enough to

support a large number of individual passengers accessing it at the same time.

"Although the London to Brighton line presents many challenges we have proved that high-
speed wireless access to moving trains is possible without building huge towers or other costly
infrastructure. Whether the train travels through tunnels, bridges or through high hedgerows,
customers should not experience a drop in service," said Nigel Wallbridge, executive chairman
of Nomad Digital, in a statement.

Broadreach's system uses a combination of 3G networks and a satellite link to connect back to
the Internet.


    "    " 


Wireless operator Broadreach Networks has signed deals with Virgin and four other unnamed
rail operators to install wireless hot spots on their trains. Magnus McEwan-King, Broadreach's
founder, is confident that at least two of these operators will have launched commercial services
by the end of this year.

With GNER already rolling out Wi-Fi trains through a partnership with Icomera -- one of
Broadreach's rivals -- wireless trains should soon be appearing all across the UK railway

"You have to wirelessly enable every carriage in a train, and every train in a fleet," McEwan-
King said on Thursday. "That's the only way this market will succeed."

Earlier this summer, Broadreach secured several million pounds of additional funding from its
investors, which include BT, Intel and Virgin. According to Broadreach, this cash could be used
to Wi-Fi-enable "between 45 and 50 percent" of UK rolling stock.

"We've got enough cash to upgrade 700 trains," McEwan-King explained.

Virgin is already installing Wi-Fi networks within its Pendolino locomotives, while GNER has
offered wireless services on some of its trains for several months. Wi-Fi rollout on trains is a
slow business, though, as they have to be taken out of service while the upgrades take place.

Sceptics have suggested that wireless networks won't work on trains, because of the difficulty in
maintaining a link to the Internet. As anyone who has tried to use a mobile phone on a train can
testify, tunnels and deep cuttings mean that there are many places on the rail network where
wireless connectivity is likely to be poor or non-existent.

Broadreach is using a system created by Pointshot Wireless, a US technology company. An

access point is installed in each carriage, linked to one main transmitting and receiving device.
This will provide a broadband connection, linking via mobile phone base stations or a satellite to
an Internet gateway.

GPS will be used to track each train. This will help the system to choose the best connectivity
method at each stage of the journey. For example, Orange's 3G network coverage might be better
than Vodafone's in a certain location, so the connection would jump between the two before the
signal degraded.

When trains enter tunnels, though, neither mobile networks nor satellite will be within reach.
McEwan-King says that Pointshot incorporates an "intelligent spoofing" system that will create
the illusion that the connection hasn't broken for up to 60 seconds.
Although this won't work for VPN connections, it should mean that most Web applications will
keep running and won't have to be restarted.