Train operators and airlines have talked about wireless Internet on the move for several years, but in the next few weeks the first commercial services will finally arrive.
Among the first off the launch pad will be Lufthansa's Wi-Fi equipped planes, based on Boeing's long-delayed Connexion system; a Wi-Fi-enabled email system from Emirates, powered by Tenzing; and GNER's Wi-Fi services on trains up and down the East coast of England and Scotland. All attempt to cash in on the demand created by the sudden availability of inexpensive Wi-Fi wireless LAN equipment, which now often comes as standard in new laptops.
"If there's a case for hotspot technology in airports and train stations, there's surely an even stronger case for having it on the planes themselves," says Robin Duke-Woolley, director of technology consultant E-principles. "People spend more time on planes than at airports, hopefully."
Wi-Fi hotspots are also increasingly common in public places such as coffee shops and even McDonald's restaurants, but the concept of Wi-Fi "roaming" is still in its infancy, meaning users will often find themselves unable to access the local hotspot without signing up for a new account. Service providers including Tenzing and Boeing are now signing what amount to roaming agreements with other service providers, linking up traditional Internet access, terrestrial hotspots, in-transit Wi-Fi and even WAN services such as GPRS and 3G.
Intercity trains are theoretically cheaper and easier to outfit with Internet connections than planes, and accordingly they are further along this track (sorry) than the airline industry. Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) has been running trials of Wi-Fi on two diesel High-Speed Trains (HSTs) since December, and earlier this month added an electric "Mallard" train to the lineup.
At the same time the company announced it would launch a commercial service, extending Wi-Fi to ten Mallards travelling between London Kings Cross, the East Midlands, Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland. The new trains should be equipped by the end of this year.
The current service allows first-class passengers to connect for free. This summer GNER plans to extend access to the rest of the trains, with first class access remaining free, while standard passengers will be charged £4.95 per hour - slightly more than a typical public hotspot, but considerably less than anything contemplated by the airline industry. Service is provided by Icomera, which was involved in a pioneering Scandinavian train-based Wi-Fi system.
GNER makes it clear that it sees Wi-Fi Internet access, like the ability to leave your mobile phone switched on, mainly as a selling point for business customers. "We are confident that the new service will encourage more people to take the train instead of driving or flying," says GNER chief executive Christopher Garnett.
Virgin Trains last month launched a six-month Wi-Fi trial for first-class passengers on its North-Western routes. Broadreach, which provides the service, uses GPRS or 3G for the uplink and a satellite connection for the downlink. The company argues that even with GPRS, the fast satellite download speeds mean customers will get an "ADSL-like" experience, and predicts 3G will be available for the uplink by the time the trial ends. Broadreach charges £4 per hour for ordinary hotspot access, and said it will probably charge somewhat more for train connections.
Eurostar is also planning to get in on the act with a trans-Chunnel service. The company is to begin refurbishing its 10-year-old fleet of 27 trains from the middle of the year, and this will include installing facilities for Wi-Fi-enabled laptops.
Details have not yet been ironed out, but the system is likely to be similar to the one GNER is trialling, connecting to the Internet via a satellite link, Eurostar said. The downside is that service will be interrupted while trains are under the Channel.
The market for train-based services may prove to be limited, particularly if using the service means signing up for yet another wireless ISP account, says Gartner analyst Ian Keene. "Sure, if it's there, it's free and it works, people will use it," he says. "It all depends on the user experience. And many of these people will be commuters; if they have to communicate on trains they might be better off buying a 2.5G card for their PC."
Wi-Fi in the sky
Putting the Internet on planes has proven to be a more complicated matter. Boeing's Connexion service has taken the most ambitious approach and has received the most press, but is now about two years behind its original schedule. Boeing originally sold the system to US airlines, but after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks these found themselves struggling for financial survival, and all pulled out.
Boeing refocused on airlines based outside the US with more success, and the first commercial Connexion system - on board a Lufthansa flight - is due to leave the ground later this month.
On the face of it, Connexion's offering sounds ideal, with 5 Mbit/s download and 1 Mbit/s upload speeds, Wi-Fi and pricing starting at about $10 (£6). Connexion's main competition, Airbus-backed Tenzing, is less glamourous at first glance, with mostly wired connections, 128 kbit/s for uploads and downloads, no VPN connections, email-only access and extra fees for large messages and attachments.
On closer examination, the picture isn't quite so simple. Connexion's service is a far bigger risk for airlines, with an estimated $1 million cost of installing equipment and, by some accounts, 12 hours needed to outfit each plane. By contrast, Tenzing reuses the telephone and entertainment server systems already found in most international aircraft. For most planes the system can be activated by merely installing server software, or buying a new radio for less than $100,000, Tenzing says.
Tenzing is already running in about 900 planes, including those of several US airlines and Cathay Pacific, with others such as Emirates and Iberia on the way. Lufthansa says it will take until sometime next year to outfit its fleet, and other Connexion customers will not even begin installation until this summer or autumn.
Tenzing says it is taking steps to bump up connection speeds, allow for more kinds of Internet usage, drop extra fees and even, through arrangements with individual companies, allow VPNs. The company notes that its connections are only shared by the passengers on a single plane, while Connexion planes must share with others in the same satellite footprint, which could mean dozens of other flights.
Some analysts don't see in-flight Internet access as particularly attractive to passengers, warning it could be about as popular as in-flight phones. "We are used to having a period where we can't use the cell phone and are not sending email," said Gartner's Keene. "If a technology comes along to allow us to fill that time in a cost effective manner, fine, but I don't think it will change the way we work."
It all comes down to cost, Keene argued, and planes will have a hard time competing with terrestrial hotspots in that area because they depend on expensive satellite backhaul links. "People would use (in-flight access) if they had something that couldn't wait. But with Wi-Fi hotspots in airport lounges, they will have a chance to synchronise email on either end of the flight. They will have to compare that to the cost of actually doing it on the plane," Keene said.
Phones in the air
Mobile phones could soon be following Wi-Fi into the stratosphere. WirelessCabin, an EC-funded consortium led by the German Aerospace Centre with members including Airbus, Siemens and Ericsson, will this summer trial a system that puts a short-range mobile phone "picocell" on board aircraft. Phones transmit to the picocell at very low power, eliminating interference with on-board avionics and terrestrial base stations.
WirelessCabin's system is compatible with any infrastructure, so it could be added on to Tenzing or Connexion's offerings; the consortium is planning trials with Lufthansa.
The mobile phone option could prove popular by allowing business travellers to remain available to receive calls, just as they do when roaming on international networks. "That sort of thing could be more usable (on planes) than the Internet, and would be likely to bring in more revenue," says Mark Darby, managing director of Aviation Strategy. "People might want the option to take their calls."