Bell offers wireless Web to first-class train travellers

TORONTO – Canada’s national passenger train service is offering wireless Internet access to riders with their own Wi-Fi devices travelling between Toronto and Montreal.

At Toronto’s Union Station, Bell Canada announced a four-month

trial Wednesday, in which passengers travelling first class on VIA Rail Canada Inc.’s trains running between Montreal and Toronto will be able to access the Web free of charge.

The service will be available on VIA train 66 (running from Toronto to Montreal Sunday to Friday, 5 to 9 p.m.) and train 53 (running from Montreal to Toronto weekdays from 6:55 to 11:1 a.m.). A VIA 1 first class ticket costs $168, whereas an economy ticket (which does not entitle users to Wi-Fi service) costs between $84 and $105.

The service uses a combination of 802.11b Wi-Fi technology, Bell ExpressVu satellite service and Bell Mobility’s 1XRTT network. When a user accesses the Internet, the signal is sent from the client to an 802.11b access point on the train, and then to an ExpressVu satellite.

If satellite communication is not available, the system will fail over to Bell Mobility’s 1XRTT data network.

Bell would not provide specific download speeds, but company officials said the service will be at least as good as dial-up access. The access points, which were installed by Ottawa-based integrator PointShot Wireless, include Web caching servers.

Warren Chaisatien, a senior analyst for telecommunications for IDC Canada Ltd., used the service during a demonstration Wednesday and agreed it is comparable to analogue dial-up.

“”Hopefully in a few years time, when wireless carriers roll out 3G, you’ll get better or faster speeds, but for the time being, this is a good start,”” Chaisatien said in an interview with after the conference.

Users will not have to pay during the trial period, but will be asked a series of questions (including whether they’d be willing to pay, and if so, how much) when they log on.

The train service is part of Bell’s AccessZone strategy, which was announced last December and has been extended for another five months.

The carrier operates 25 Wi-Fi hotspots at various locations, including Union Station (the downtown train terminal for both VIA and Ontario’s GO commuter train service) and Air Canada’s Maple Leaf lounges. The busiest AccessZone sites have been at the train stations and airports, said Kerry Eberwein, Bell Canada’s general manager for cabling and wireless local-area network solutions.

He said the overall number of users increased about 200 per cent between December and June, and the peak usage periods are between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. and between 4:00 and 7:00 p.m. weekdays.

The average time users spend per session is 20 minutes, while the average session at train stations and airports are 30 minutes, Eberwein added.

Chaisatien said Bell Canada needs to run more trials in order to get more information on users and usage patterns.

“”They need more time in order to more clearly understand users, usage patterns and behaviour – what type of information they are downloading, what time of day, how many times a day, at what location,”” he said. “”The most important thing is whether or not you will pay, and if so, how much. This type of information is critical, but it is very difficult to get.””

The business model for inter-city train service may be different from the model for commuter trains, said Warren Gallagher, chief technology officer and vice-president of product management for PointShot Wireless.

Gallagher said VIA may offer the service free of charge in order to compete with short-haul air carriers, while commuter train passengers may be more inclined to pay for the service.

PointShot has signed a deal to install a similar service with a U.S.-based rail company, though PointShot cannot name the customer yet.

The VIA train service “”stands a good chance of evolving into a commercial service,”” said Almis Ledas, Bell Mobility’s vice-president for corporate development.

Ledas said trains can be a “”hostile”” environment for wireless data users. Trains have more electromagnetic interference than cars, and networks aren’t always designed to be available on railroad tracks, he said.

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