VIA rolls out pay-per-use Wi-Fi

Toronto – VIA Rail Canada hoped to get passengers all aboard as it launched a new pay-per-use Wi-Fi service late last month.

The service is available today to all travellers going between Montréal and Québec City and in many VIA 1 class cars between Montréal and Toronto. By the end of April, it will be available in every first class car in the Québec-Windsor corridor, and by the end of the year, to all cars in the corridor.

The service will cost $3.99 for the first 15 minutes of access and 30 cents for every additional minute. Daily access — available for 24 hours — will cost $8.99 and monthly access will be $46.

VIA hopes to attract more business customers to its trains by offering the service, said its chief customer officer, Steve Del Bosco, in an interview following a press conference held aboard a VIA train.

But charging people to surf on the train may not be the best way to attract new customers, said Lawrence Surtees, vice-president of communications research at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto.

“You get less and less and you have to pay, pay, pay for all the extras,” Surtees said. “I think that’s a marketer’s wishful thinking. There are benefits to taking the train, but it’s not having to shell out money for the extras.”

People will likely work offline and then wait to connect once they pull in, he said. They’re not likely to pay, although some might given that they’re locked in VIA.

Surtees is not the only skeptic.

At the price points VIA is charging, it’s not likely to attract many customers, said Roberta Fox, president and senior partner at Fox Consulting Group.

“It’s a bit too expensive, too late,” she said. Users have become used to free access in coffee shops and other locations which offer Wi-Fi as a value-add to attract customers. They’re willing to pay in locations such as trains and airports where they are trapped, but only $1 or $2 per transaction. “I can use my cell for less,” she said of VIA’s prices. And with evolution data-optimized (EV-DO) cellular services coming, customers can get faster speeds than those offered by VIA.

“It’s like cellular on steroids,” Fox said of EV-DO.

In urban centres, the maximum speed VIA is offering is 3Mbps for downloads and 300 Kbps for uploads. In rural areas, connection speeds are about 1Mbps for downloads and 100Kbps for uploads. The connection speed between the user’s computer and train’s server is 11Mbps.

That’s shared access, so it may not be fast enough, Fox said. If two or three people on the train are trying to use VoIP phones, for example, it’ll be too slow, she said.

But VIA is hopeful. Companies with corporate VIA accounts have said they’d use trains more if Wi-Fi were available, Del Bosco said. VIA hopes to both increase the number of trips existing customers take and to attract new customers, he said.

“We believe trains offer a relaxing environment and a productive block of time that is uninterrupted and that uninterrupted block of time is something Wi-Fi can fill in.”

Pilot project
VIA determined pricing by examining what customers are willing to pay in other places, such as hotspots in cafes, Del Bosco said.

In 2003, VIA conducted a pilot program with Bell Canada in which it offered Wi-Fi services to passengers for free.

“The trial went extremely well,” Del Bosco said.

Forty per cent of passengers used the service and 96 per cent said this was a feature they wanted.

Another 85 per cent said VIA should expand the service to other cars and trains. Fifty per cent of users said they’d be willing to pay for Wi-Fi access.

Del Bosco said VIA expects initial uptake on the new pay-per-use service to be around 40 to 50 per cent.

“We expect utilization to go up significantly,” he said.

He said it took so long between the initial pilot project in 2003 and the official launch because “we wanted to make sure we were covering the network efficiently.”

And because the technology is developing rapidly, the delay allowed VIA to upgrade its technology, he said.

The project was led by Parsons Corp., a Pasadena, Calif.-based engineering company.

Users can surf the Internet, check their personal e-mail or tunnel into their corporate VPNs, said Keith Dunbar, vice-president and division manager for Parsons Transportation Group. Dunbar gave a demonstration of the new service during the press conference, which was held on a moving VIA train. “Essentially we’re in a moving hotspot,” he said.

Passengers with Wi-Fi devices will be able to detect the network automatically.

“The system constantly searches for the best connection relative to the environment we’re in,” he said.

The system switches from cellular to satellite, though for the most part it uses satellite to download info and cellular to upload it, Dunbar said.

VIA will expand the service once the infrastructure is in place, Dunbar said.

It will begin offering media services, such as movies, TV programs, games and music that users can download to their devices. Pricing models for the media offerings have yet to be determined, Del Bosco said.

The system uses Bell Canada for all cellular communications and Just-Tech for satellite services.

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