Wi-Fi Rides the Rails

By Ed Sutherland

July 23, 2003

Canadian rail companies are trying out in-car wireless Internet access in an experiment with Bell Canada and others to see if passengers will use the access as much as they say they will.

Will railroads take their place alongside airports, coffee shops and McDonald's as the newest venue for Wi-Fi access? A pilot program supported by some of the biggest wireless promoters in the industry hopes to answer that question.

Montreal-based VIA Rail Canada will provide business-class passengers with wireless Internet access as they travel between Toronto and Montreal. Bell Canada will use its ExpressVu satellite service for the backhaul Internet connectivity and Wi-Fi gear from startup PointShot Wireless will serve as the on-board pipeline between laptop users and the Net.

VIA will add more Wi-Fi-enabled first class cars as the pilot progresses.

Intel, which wants to see Wi-Fi become ubiquitous, is deploying its "Wireless Verification Program" to assure consumers that the new service will be compatible with Centrino gear found in increasing numbers of notebook computers. Centrino is a chipset pairing an mobile Pentium with an 802.11b (and soon 11g) chip.

VIA plans to offer the Wi-Fi service free to passengers while it conducts a survey on eventual pricing. An earlier survey by PointShot and Intel found 90% of people who responded saw Internet access while onboard a train a plus.

"Our research indicates that Canadian business people want to use their travel time to catch-up on e-mail, work on presentations and do other work-related tasks. They appreciate easy and convenient access to the Internet," said Doug Cooper, general manager, Intel Canada.

"Almost 88 percent of these commuters are taking the train four to five days a week and they obviously feel they can put this time to good use with high speed Internet access. The ability to get their information while on the train in the morning makes them more productive when they arrive at work. Having all their e-mail done at the end of the day when they step off the train means more time for their own activities and their families," said Shawn Griffin, PointShot CEO and President.

The survey was conducted in April and respondents were Toronto metro rail commuters.

Bell's ExpressVu satellite system already provides rail passengers with television and a 400Kbps Internet link.

In the Bell Canada pilot, part of Bell Canada's AccessZone Wi-Fi based experiment, an Internet connection will be beamed by satellite to train passengers with notebook computers. Any responses are then sent to the train's wireless network provided by PointShot and then onto the Internet via Bell Mobility's CDMA 1X wireless network.

PointShot Wireless, an Ottawa-based startup begun in 2002, specializes in providing wireless access for mobile venues, such as public transportation and railways. While company officials have indicated they have contracted with a U.S. rail provider, no details are given.

Early in 2003, Britain's BT said it planned to offer Wi-Fi service in that nation's many railway stations. France has already begun unwiring its Paris metro stations.

In Jan. 2002, Amtrak conducted a six-month experiment providing wireless Internet access to passengers on three popular lines in California and the Midwest U.S. Yahoo and Compaq supported the pilot.

PointShot Chief Technology Officer Warren Gallagher, reportedly says the company is working on bringing its Wi-Fi system to European railroads and passenger ferries in British Columbia.

The Canadian pilot program underwent testing earlier this summer.

Other railroads experimenting with wireless Internet service for passengers include Sweden's railroads and New Dehli's Indian Railways.

Originally published on .

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