Full Steam Ahead for Wi-Fi

By Gerry Blackwell

December 05, 2003

Wi-Fi access services on trains are starting to take off -- or perhaps we should say, depart -- for commuters in Silicon Valley and around the world.

Silicon Valley commuters can now surf the Web at near DSL speeds as they roll to work on the train thanks to an innovative Wi-Fi-based access service. Wireless-savvy commuters started asking for the service three years ago. They finally got when it launched on October 15.

It's being trialed by the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA), an intergovernmental agency that oversees Amtrak-operated commuter trains running to and from Sacramento, Santa Clara and San Jose in California. For at least the first month, the service will be free.

The technology comes from PointShot Wireless, a start-up headquartered in Ottawa, Canada that specializes in Wi-Fi for trains and other vehicles.

PointShot has two other trials up and running. One, launched in the summer, is on the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) running between Stockton and San Jose, also in California. The other, which PointShot claims is the first in-train Wi-Fi service in North America, is operated by telco Bell Canada on a ViaRail route between Toronto and Montreal.

PointShot also recently announced $1 million in Series A funding from institutional investors to help the company expand into the European market.

In Europe, meanwhile, Icomera AB, a Swedish firm using technology similar to PointShot's, claims to have been the first in-train Wi-Fi service anywhere. It launched a trial early this year on a route between Gothenburg, Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark operated by Scandinavian rail company Linx AB.

Icomera has since signed a five-year deal with Linx and has also sold its technology to GNER, a British rail company.

The PointShot trial on the heavily-traveled CCJPA service is the company's highest profile to date. One passenger car is outfitted with Wi-Fi gear, which is moved from route to route on a daily basis. Riders anxious to compute while they commute can look at the authority's Web site to find out where the Wi-Fi car is on any given day.

The service has generally been received well, though not uncritically. PointShot, which is managing the trial, caps the number of simultaneous log-ons at 20. Peak usage so far has been about 14. That's on one train car, and it's only a couple of weeks into the trial. This would seem to suggest there is a fair amount of demand.

The CCJPA already knew there was demand, though. It started hearing from Silicon Valley customers about Wi-Fi three years ago, and more recently has received frequent e-mails. The agency prides itself on its customer focus, and does onboard surveys of passengers to get ideas for improving service. It heard demand for Internet service in the surveys as well.

"They definitely like that it's available now," says Jim Allison, senior planner with the CCJPA. "But some of their VPNs [virtual private networks] don't work apparently -- probably an issue of latency, PointShot tells us."

"These users also like things to be as fast as they can possibly be. So while some are just happy to have it at any speed, some are saying, 'Gee, this is great, but why can't it be faster?'"

There are reasons for that. The PointShot technology uses Wi-Fi in the train, but the backhaul is provided by a satellite connection for the down link and cellular for the up link. That will slow things down, especially juggling communications links at 70 mph.

PointShot president and CEO Shawn Griffin says actual throughput is typically "somewhere between a fast dial-up connection and a slow DSL connection." Since starting the trials, the company has developed caching and compression techniques for improving throughput.

At the core of the PointShot solution is the on-train RailPoint server, a combination access point, Web server, caching and compression engine and intelligent backhaul switcher. A cable runs from the server to a roof-mounted antenna enclosure, which includes satellite, cellular and Wi-Fi antennas.

When a train is in the station, and the station has a useable Wi-Fi service -- none in PointShot's trials currently has - the RailPoint server will use the Wi-Fi antenna to bridge users to the in-station service. As the train pulls away and that connection degrades, RailPoint automatically switches to satellite and cellular.

If the train goes through an area where there is no cellular coverage, RailPoint can temporarily switch to satellite for both up and down links, and when the train goes into a tunnel, blocking satellite reception, it can switch to cellular in both directions.

PointShot has signed deals with other rail services for trials but hasn't announced them yet. It is marketing the RailPoint solution all over the world, Griffin says.

The company also has a second product, MotionPoint, designed to provide similar functionality in executive buses and recreational vehicles (RVs). PointShot trialed MotionPoint on the campaign and press buses of ex-premier Ernie Eves in the recent provincial election in Ontario.

It didn't help. Eves lost the election, but everybody thought the Wi-Fi access was great, Griffin says, especially members of the press. PointShot has already recruited resellers to sell the MotionPoint product to RV owners, many of whom want high-speed Internet access wherever they go, he says.

PointShot does not have a monopoly on the CCJPA trains. It first approached the authority about operating a trial. The authority then declared that in the interests of fair play, it would open up its trains for 12 months to any vendor who wanted to run a Wi-Fi trial.

So far, two additional trials are in planning stages, one headed even by Cisco Systems Inc. and Verizon Communications. These trials will run concurrently with the PointShot trial.

"Our hope," says Allison, "is to eventually put out a request for qualifications and receive several bids."

In fact, the authority expects to issue the RFQ by July or August 2004 and have commercial service up and running on its trains by October.

It will probably take several years for it to be rolled out to all train routes, though. Silicon Valley commuter trains, for obvious reasons, will get first priority.

Much else has yet to be worked out. At this point, the CCJPA is thinking of adopting a concession model. The winning bidder would be given access to the authority's trains to install equipment and operate the Wi-Fi service.

The service provider might pay a concession fee and/or share revenues with the authority. Or the CCJPA might waive fees an/or revenue sharing in return for bandwidth and software that would let onboard staff use the service for online ticketing and other applications.

PointShot says it is working on rail company applications.

Pricing for the second semi-commercial phase of the PointShot-Capitol Corridor trial is expected to be comparable with pricing of the service offered by T-Mobile in Starbucks coffee shop, Allison says. Pricing of an eventual commercial service has yet to be considered.

Allison notes that the state, which provides all of the CCJPA's funding, might get involved and set permissible parameters on either or both of price and service levels.

Meanwhile, the authority is also working on the Wi-Fi-on-trains initiative with the California Center for Innovative Transportation, a task group funded by The University of California at Berkeley and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

Satellite and cellular, with their obvious drawbacks, are not the only ways to provide backhaul for in-train Wi-Fi services, Griffin says. With modern antenna technology, it's possible to extend coverage from Wi-Fi access points up to two miles, so it may be possible in future for train systems to get signal from Wireless Internet Services Providers (WISPs) along the route.

However, it's "capitally prohibitive" -- at least for now -- to think of deploying access points all along a rail route just to provide in-train service, Griffin says.

Wi-Fi on the train makes a lot of sense. Commuters are trapped. Some at least would like to put that time to better use. This is one way to do it.

One question, a perennial in any discussion of public access Wi-Fi, is, can anyone make money at this? Time will tell.

Originally published on .

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