Wi-Fi VIA the Rails

By Eric Griffith

November 23, 2005

Canada's VIA Rail will have wireless connections available on all trains, as well as in stations on the Quebec-to-Windsor corridor, by this time next year.

VIA Rail Canada has made Wi-Fi official. After over a year of trials, the railway said last week that it has a five-year contract in place to put wireless in reach of not only passengers, but for business as well — imagine wireless entertainment services and ticketing in the future.

The service will be installed eventually on all the trains running the Quebec City to Windsor, Ontario corridor. The systems integrator is Parsons, using equipment from Ottawa-based PointShot Wireless. The hotspot sign-on will be handled by Opti-Fi, a provider with networks set up at several North American airports. (Opti-Fi is partially owned by Parsons.)

"We've worked with Parsons and VIA for close to a year to work through the business stuff, not so much the technology," says PointShot President and CEO Shawn Griffin. "The killer isn't the technology; it's the business model."

PointShot makes the RailPoint product that will be installed on the trains. It uses a combination of cellular tower and satellite connections to provide backhaul connections to the Internet. The company also makes products suitable for mass-transit buses (MobilePoint).

Parsons is also turning on Wi-Fi service in 22 train stations along the route. On the trains, you'll find it in the less expensive Comfort Class cars as well as the more upscale VIA1 class. The Panorama Lounges at the stations, where customers wait to board VIA1 class cars, also will be outfitted with Wi-Fi.

Deployment is currently limited to two stations, five trains and four lounges, but Griffin says that by the second quarter of next year, every business class car should be equipped. The company expects the entire fleet and all stations/lounges to have access by this time in 2006. Parsons has a five-year contract with VIA to provide the Wi-Fi services.

Griffin says the cost for end users signing on will be around $9 per day (if going round-trip in one day, that covers both trips) or $46 per month for unlimited usage, and there will be per-minute pricing available for limited use. Revenue from users will be shared with VIA Rail. (Opti-Fi charges $7 per day and $35 per month at airports.)

Griffin stresses that this is more than just a mobile hotspot: "It'll be handling all of VIA's communication needs on the train. Hotspots gets you only so far... but offering entertainment, tickets and more with the wireless, that's a whole different way to increase ROI [return on investment] and decrease the cost."



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