Wi-Fi on Track, Finally

After almost three years of testing Wi-Fi Internet access on trains, VIA Rail Canada, the Canadian national rail operator, and partner Parsons, a diversified U.S. firm that provides business services to railway companies all over North America, have finally pulled the trigger on a commercial deployment of the technology.

The partners claim it will be the world’s largest implementation of onboard Wi-Fi. All 160 cars in VIA Rail’s fleet running along the 700-mile corridor between Quebec City and Windsor, Ontario will be equipped to provide Wi-Fi access by the end of July. The project will also light up public concourses and lounges in 23 rail stations along the route.

None of the other major Wi-Fi-on-trains deployments around the world, including Linx AB in Sweden, and GNER and Virgin Trains in the UK, has as many cars with Wi-Fi activated.

VIA Rail was one of the first in the world, if not the first, to experiment with using Wi-Fi to provide passengers with high-speed Internet access. It started offering the trial service in 2003, partnering with Bell Canada, the incumbent telephone company in Ontario and Quebec, and using technology from PointShot Wireless. Parsons entered the picture over a year ago, with a mandate to build a workable business model around the technology and service.

Parsons is providing all funding and management. The company says it will spend $10 million, which covers hardware and software, initial implementation and operating costs over the five years of the agreement. “This is a business-driven initative,” says Keith Dunbar, a Senior Vice President at Parsons who is leading the project. “We are using excellent technology from exceptional companies. Our strength is bringing everything together in a sustainable business.”

Parsons will share revenues with VIA Rail. Dunbar won’t provide more details, but insists the arrangement is a partnership rather than a concession granted by VIA. The company expects the business to become profitable during the first five years, but will be “constantly monitoring sustainability,” Dunbar says.

PointShot, an Ottawa startup, first approached VIA over three years ago with its RailPoint product, the innovative system it developed for onboard Wi-Fi access. RailPoint includes a server inside the car and an antenna/radio cluster on the roof.

The system uses Wi-Fi to connect end users in the train to the server, then cellular for upstream backhaul, and satellite (and occasionally cellular) for downstream. It will also connect to Wi-Fi networks on the platforms in stations. The server uses software technology for finding and switching to the optimum wide area network connection. The system also has a GPS (Global Positioning System) component.

Icomera, the Swedish company that is supplying Linx and GNER in Europe, has a very similar system with its Wireless Onboard Internet product. (Virgin Trains, the third European rail operator mentioned, is another PointShot customer.)

Throughout the long trial period on VIA Rail, the company provided service for free, but only on a few first class cars and in first class lounges at a few stations. Parsons, working with PointShot, developed technology to extend access throughout the train. It uses a mesh network approach and off-the-shelf access points from Proxim Wireless in each car. A single “brain car” with a RailPoint system feeds the rest of the cars, which self-configure when combined to form a train.

The system delivers 300 to 400 kilobits per second (Kbps) upstream bandwidth in areas where EV-DO third-generation cellular coverage is available (Toronto and Montréal) and 100 to 175 Kbps in areas where previous-generation 1xRTT technology is used. Downstream bandwidth – where satellite coverage is available, i.e. not in tunnels and urban canyons – will be 1.5 to 2 megabits per second (Mbps), Dunbar says.

At the time it announced the commercial launch, Parsons also said it would introduce an entertainment service on trains with media streamed to subscribers from the RailPoint server over the Wi-Fi network. This would be a premium service. There is nothing stopping customers streaming music or video from the public Internet, Dunbar says, but despite the downstream bandwidth claimed, the network may not support Web streaming.

“We’ve never hidden the fact that connecting to the Internet in a moving vehicle has challenges,” he says. “We’re tweaking [the technology] on a daily basis and we’re committed to getting to a true broadband experience.”

Users pay about $8.20 for a 24-hour day pass. They can also buy a monthly subscription for about $42. This gives them access in the stations as well as on the trains, but nowhere else. “Currently, our focus is on the transportation corridor,” Dunbar says.

Subscribers to T-Mobile Hotspot and iPass hotspot services can (or will soon be able to) roam on the VIA Rail service. Parsons is also working towards a similar roaming agreement with Bell Canada.

Besides the revenue sharing, Parsons is committed to helping VIA Rail develop internal applications that exploit the network. One will use the GPS component to provide an estimated time of arrival for passengers on the train and at the stations. Maintenance workers inside the trains will also use Wi-Fi handheld devices to take note of maintenance issues such as torn carpets or upholstery and transmit the information to a central dispatch center.

“There are really no bounds to creativity,” Dunbar says. “We’re committed to working with VIA Rail, and very focused on looking at as many applications as we can run over the network.”

Some rail operators have talked about using Wi-Fi systems for onboard ticketing. Passengers wouldn’t have to line up to get tickets before boarding if they were running late. They could buy on the train from a conductor carrying a handheld wireless device. It would record credit card transactions, get credit card authorization over the Internet, and transmit transaction data to a central accounting system. Dunbar says that if VIA Rail wanted to do this, it could, but notes that there are security and other issues that might prevent the company from implementing such a system.

Parsons, which is also operating a trial of PointShot-based onboard Wi-Fi for Capitol Corridor, an Amtrak operator in northern California, says it is aggressively marketing the solution it developed for VIA Rail to other rail operators. “We provide services to many if not most of the train operators in North America,” Dunbar says, “and we’re very actively talking to all prospects.” At the time of writing, he was expecting to announce another new commercial deployment within days.

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