Rail operators across Europe, Asia and the US are suddenly rushing to deploy high-speed wireless in a bid to lure business passengers away from the airlines and reshape the industry's typically staid image while they're at it.
UK-based research group BWCS predicts that around 620 million people will be travelling on Wi-Fi-enabled trains by the end of next year and that some 17% of these passengers will dole out more than $400m to connect their laptops and hand-held gadgets.
One of the big drivers for Wi-Fi in trains is the belief amongst rail operators that many commuters, especially in Europe, would chose rail over air if they thought that they could work throughout the journey.
In fact the UK's GNER recently reported that around a fifth of its customers who transferred their air tickets to rail did so because of access to Wi-Fi. And a BWCS survey from three years ago found that 72% of business travellers in the UK were going to switch to trains over planes conditional on Wi-Fi access being provided.
"My view is that this is going to become absolutely routine in absolutely every advanced city," says Bruce McCabe, director of Australian technology analysts S2 Intelligence. "Within the next five years it will be an expectation in every city."
Earlier in the year UK-based transit communications firm Nomad – in partnership with cellular provider T-Mobile – installed its technology along the busy Heathrow Express line linking Central London to the airport.
This was the first real litmus test for Wi-Fi on commercial rail, and it showed that business travellers had a big demand for it. Several rail operators in England are now leading the way, with GNER recently reporting that it is the first operator to offer internet access on all of its trains. Rival Virgin has similar ambitions.
Operators in Sweden and Holland are leading the way in mainland Europe, closely followed by Italy. France is in trial mode.
In the US, there have been several small-scale projects, especially on the west coast. These are expected to bloom into full-scale deployment. Nomad seems to be most active in this market.
And it is not only Europe and the US moving towards Wi-Fi. In Asia, Wi-Fi is well and truly up and running in the main metros of China, Japan, and Korea. Earlier this year Singapore's Land Transport Authority issued an RFI for a Wi-Fi-based train-borne surveillance system and competition for that contract should be fierce.
CASHING IN ON WI-FI
Revenues from passenger connectivity charges are expected to grow exponentially. The UK's GNER offers Wi-Fi free to its first class passengers while standard passengers pay from £2.95 for 30 minutes up to £9.95 for three hours.
S2 Intelligence's McCabe says that the next stage of connectivity is for the provision of Wi-Fi networks that talk to each other "The UK in the next few years will move to the next level whereby a data conversation is being conducted somewhere and a user boards the train and keeps that conversation.
"It won't just be about being connected, but the ability to handshake between networks."
But the real money for rail operators will be in advertising as carriage billboards are pulled down to make way for interactive online digital displays. On-board services will be tailored to individual train services, for instance providing big blocks of connectivity and entertainment for long journeys while screening the evening news or other information for peak-hour commuters.
Wi-Fi also supports a whole raft of solutions for better staff communications, maintenance, safety and security that could save operators untold millions. Dutch Rail recently reported that running Wi-Fi along its rail network has saved €6m in the more efficient rostering of staff alone.
And with security now foremost in the minds of operators, IP-based video surveillance systems running over Wi-Fi are known to be more efficient in collecting and managing data than equivalent CCTV systems, and sometimes at 20% or less of the cost.
Alex Shelkovnikov, an analyst with Deloitte UK's technology Integration practice, says rail operators will be forced to take account of wireless and other emerging technologies in their business planning. "Train operators which don't have the service are not going to be really competitive. It's [Wi-Fi] not a commodity yet but it's going to be."
Shelkovnikov adds that the operational benefits that Wi-Fi promises rail companies will likely see passengers eventually being offered it for free.
Wi-Fi networks will also support communications between intelligent handheld devices for staff and between police, emergency services and other personnel. Tied in with this will be improved maintenance and safety.
Australian telecommunications carrier Telstra announced in April that it would build 77 base stations in regional Australia as part of an $85m deal to deliver communications services to the Australian rail Track Corporation via its new NEXT G network. The deployment is for staff communications but the telco says that passengers will have options for mobile communications in the future.
Demand for better passenger communications has led to a number of high-profile partnerships between rail and mobile operators such as GNER / Icomera and Virgin / Nomad in the UK and Hong Kong's MRI with Coloubris.
THE THREE-HORSE RACE
The market for transit internet systems is basically a three-horse race. Currently leading, Sweden's Icomera markets a system which relies on transmitting via satellite for the downstream while using cellular for the upstream. The immediate availability of satellite and mobile spectrum helped the company gain an early advantage. Its biggest client is GNER, which boasts that all of its trains now have wireless. Icomera is not expected to hold onto the top position for much longer though.
Expected to move into its place, Nomad's system relies on actually building wireless nodes alongside the tracks, typically every 2km or so. These are connected via a variant of the WiMax wireless protocol and 3G.
WiMax uses OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing), which splits signals into multiple frequencies without interference. OFDM is used in European digital audio broadcast services.
Deloitte's Shelkovnikov feels that Wimax is a natural choice for rail operators. "It offers better reliability generally, particularly with regard to tunnels. Nomad has become the benchmark."
The other good news for Nomad is that the price of the wireless switches has come down significantly over the last few years to the point where the cost of each is only around $10,000. In situations where there are long stretches of straight track, the costs come down even further.
Wi-Fi promises rail companies will likely see passengers eventually being offered it for free."
TRANSIT INTERNET NETWORKS
Aside from Heathrow Express, Nomad's big clients include Virgin in the UK and Dutch Rail. In the US Nomad recently completed initial trials of high-speed communications for Californian train operators Caltrain, which is waiting on funding to build a network that will run through Silicon Valley, San Francisco and San Jose.
Nomad also operates a Wi-Fi system between London and Brighton for rail operators Southern in partnership with T Mobile.
Nomad has also conducted successful trials in the Netherlands and is active in markets worldwide including India, the Middle East and the Far East.
Nomad executive director Nigel Wallbridge explains that the company's system benefits users by constantly searching for the fastest connectivity options. Each train is assigned a public IP address which is then monitored for position and network strength.
In March Nomad expanded its technology portfolio through the acquisition of QinetiQ Rail, the commercial rail division of QinetiQ, one of the world's leading defence and security technology companies.
Colubris Networks has been the most successful in provider in Asia. Earlier this year it was awarded a huge contract to deliver wireless services to passengers of Hong Kong's busy Mass Transit Railway (MRI) system. The company is also conducting trials of its solution onboard France's super-fast PTV trains.
In June, Colubris announced a tri-radio access point where one radio is fully dedicated to continuous RF (radio frequency) security, leaving the other two to provide support for the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. The company says that its MultiService Access Point 630 helps ensure users have reliable performance for high-bandwidth business applications, as well as full-time network security.
WI-FI'S CULTURAL HURDLES
There are definite technology choices for rail operators to make. But as Nomad's Wallbridge notes, for many of the projects that his company is involved with, the cultural challenges can be just as daunting.
"The main challenge with rolling these networks out is to marry an IT culture – which marks a generation every two or three years – with the railway world, which is just not like that at all," Wallbridge notes. "We're talking timescales of 30 years."
Thankfully for most operators though, the threat of becoming irrelevant appears a powerful enough inducement to get down and get funky with the times.
"In a world where trains are super sophisticated and carrying people in a very dynamic and modern way, the idea that these vehicles don't have a high speed data connection is just insane," Wallbridge insists. "If you want to have a modern way of travelling then railway companies have to provide high-speed internet."