The Wireless Revolution Hits High-Speed Trains

23rd Jun 2005

By Anna Gouldman

Last week I found myself travelling on what appeared to be a normal high-speed Thalys train, but there was something slightly unusual about this particular journey. I spent most of it happily pre-occupied, surfing the Internet wirelessly and sending emails to friends and family, the majority of which began: “Hi. I’m on a train somewhere between Brussels and Paris….....”
As part of a European Space Agency project, 21Net has established a bi-directional satellite communications system that delivers high speed Internet to high-speed trains. The service was unveiled onboard launch partner, Thalys, in April and will be available until October. Free of charge during the launch phase the internet is available throughout business class as well as economy.

The network has been neatly integrated into the train via a discreet two-way silver satellite antenna installed on the roof of the train. Throughout the journey, data is transmitted from the train to the Satellite, which in turn relays it to the Satellite Ground Station and communicates with the Wi-Fi network onboard. The link between the train and satellite has a bandwidth of a maximum of 4 Mbit/s downstream and 2 upstream.

Power sockets in the walls invite passengers travelling with laptops to plug in and utilise the service. Just switch on and after accepting the terms and conditions (available in French, Dutch, German, English), users can access the internet, send and receive emails at broadband speed, watch regularly updated breaking news, enjoy films, comedy shows, music videos, see where the train is, and find out information about their destinations.

A customer support service in the form of two technology assistants on board the train is also available to assist passengers. Sony has even donated two lap tops for passengers who have arrived ill-equipped and are keen to get online.

Passengers have been increasingly turning to trains as an alternative to more costly air travel with one major benefit of being able to eliminate airport waiting time. However with the growing trend of inflight Internet connectivity, airlines are at a competitive advantage.


According to Gartner Daraquest, applications used by business travellers while travelling include:

?  Check e-mail 86%

?  Prepare documents 85%

?  Log on to Internet 74%

?  Log into corporate network 59%

?  Scheduling 48% Presentations 45%

?  Entertainment 36%

?  Hours of use while traveling Less than 1 hour 19%

?  1 - 2 hours 31% o 2

< 3 hours 19%

?  3+ hours 31%

Thalys is the only train that is equipped with the 21Net solution. 21Net claim to be the only company able to provide high-speed trains with Internet bidirectional broadband Wi-Fi satellite Internet connection. Other technologies based on GPRS communication were proved not to be reliable enough on high-speed trains.

The Thalys train services Paris, Brussels, Cologne, Amsterdam and the main cities of Northern Europe and 21Net is hoping to extend the wireless service throughout other routes. Although this service is free of charge during its launch phase, there will be an applied charge after it’s official launch.

Virgin Trains’ recently rolled out Internet access throughout its first class lounges. Additionally, in March, Virgin Trains unveiled plans to offer free Wi-Fi access to its business travellers on inter-city routes for the next six months.

Cross-channel rail operator Eurostar has also rolled out wireless Internet access at its London Waterloo and Ashford stations. In February 2004, Eurostar said it would offer passengers Wi-Fi by the end of the year and unveiled power sockets for notebooks and mobile phone chargers. Eurostar has recently said it will now begin trials next year with two unnamed suppliers.

Jean-Francois de Lantsheere, CEO, 21Net does not foresee a time when Internet access will be a free, add on service for passengers as it is expensive to install and according to Jean Francois, the costs must be to be absorbed somewhere.

Although 21Net revealed that they had doubts as to whether passengers would use the service over the short 85 minute duration of the journey, since the service was launched, over 50% of passengers who travel with a lap top have plugged into the service to use the internet, send and receive mails as well as using the additional services.

Although it has taken some time for wireless Internet access onboard trains to catch-on in the UK, this service was worth waiting for and it looks as though it may be here to stay.  Jean-Francois commented: “It is only going to be a matter of time before the disease spreads”. The uninterrupted connection onboard the train is comparable to the quality of an ADSL connection. The only downside was that it took between 7 minutes to establish a connection as the train left Brussels, but this is a matter which 21Net are aware of and working on.

The slow lull of the train throughout it’s smooth cross country route is conducive to work and for business travellers with empty time on their hands, this could be prime time for productivity. In fact, I was so engaged in my work that I was taken by surprise at the announcement that we would be arriving in Paris in 15 minutes and I was rather irritated that I had to stop what I was doing and shut down my computer, thinking to myself: “Just a few more minutes.”

So it’s official! We have turned into a generation of geeks, addicted to the Internet and all it has to offer. And someone told me the Internet is over rated.


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