Taking it to the Rails: WiMAX on Trains
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UK-based Nomad Digital uses WiMAX to provide Internet access on trains--because, conveniently enough, both radio waves and railways go in straight lines.
Nigel Wallbridge and Graeme Lowdon founded the UK-based company Nomad Digital in 2002 to provide wireless connectivity to the public transportation sector. Nomads key differentiator, Wallbridge says, is its proprietary solution for enabling seamless hand-off between Wi-Fi, WiMAX, and just about any other technology.
Its all about taking low-cost technologies and making them mobile, he says.
Last month, Nomad launched a pilot WiMax network in Stockholm, Sweden to provide Internet access on the Stockholm-to-Norrtalje route 676 commuter bus. Aside from that deployment, however, the company has generally targeted trains rather than buses, providing Wi-Fi access on Virgin Trains West Coast Main Line route (covering 528 miles of rail) and offering T-Mobile HotSpot access on the Heathrow Express train from Heathrow Airport to central London.
The response, Wallbridge says, has been extremely positive. Although the Heathrow Express ride is only 15 minutes long, he says the company is seeing average session times that are actually longer than 15 minutes.
Youd think that in 15 minutes there wouldnt be that much interest in getting onto a shuttle train ride like that, opening your laptop, and going through a sign-in processbut its immensely popular, he says. People want to have that connection.
Wallbridge says Nomad is also working on supporting cell phone coverage.
On lots of railways around the world, there isnt sufficient voice coverage, he says. In that case, we put picocells on the train. The passengers cell phone speaks to the picocell in the carriage, and the carriage connects through our network to an IP network back to the network management center, and then is hauled back to the mobile network operators.
And Nomads deployments arent just for the passengers.
Without a doubt, this market has been kick-started by the hotspots businessbut today, thats a relatively small part of what we do, Wallbridge says. Were providing communications between railways companies and their staff on the train. Were providing remote CCTV monitoring of the train. Were providing monitoring of on-board systems. Were downloading information about where the train is, and whether all the doors and brakes and air conditioning systems are working.
Nomad uses WiMAX for the majority of the backhaul, switching to a 3G network only in difficult areaswhich are, generally speaking, curves.
Think of what a railway line looks like: its straight lines connected by curves, Wallbridge says. We can do the straight lines very easily: we take a directional antenna and we point it straight down the railway line. But think of the curvethere may be just a few meters on that curve, and say theres an S bendyoud have to put in a base station just to cover that small part. So why bother?
Instead, the company simply switches over to 3G for those few seconds, then hands off seamlessly back to the WiMAX connection for the next straight line. Its those straight lines, Wallbridge says, that led him to rail deployments in the first place.
I know it sounds ridiculous, but that was one of the early things I noticed: radio waves go in straight lines, and so do railways, he says.
Nomad works with railroads in one of two wayseither by selling the system to the railroad or by acting as a service provider.
Some railroads say, Wed love these services, but we just cant afford the capex to build the network, Wallbridge says. And if the metrics of the railway are right, if theres lots of ridership, if we think we can sell tons of services to tons of different people, then well build the network at our cost, and operate it and sell services on it.
While the company has largely used Redline WiMAX equipment in the past, Wallbridge says Nomad isnt married to any single manufactureror even to any single technology.
Were pretty neutral on that, he says. Because we have this ability to switch between networks, we can add new technologies very, very cost-effectively.
In future deployments, Wallbridge says the challenge will be to continue to meet an ever-increasing demand for bandwidth.
Two or three years ago, we could manage with 2 Mbps to the train, but now were delivering 6 Mbps, and were looking ahead to delivering 20, he says. Thats just the nature of the beast.
And looking forward, Wallbridge says it wont only be about trains and busesthe companys next target, he says, might just be cars.
I dont really know what the killer application is going to be, but its going to be there: people are going to want high-bandwidth connections to their vehicles, he says. Maybe theyre monitoring things on the vehicle, maybe navigation services, information servicesall of that stuff is coming.
Los Angeles-based writer Jeff Goldman is a frequent contributor to Wi-FiPlanet.