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WLAN's Head of Steam

Train operators are the latest public service providers to jump on board the wireless LAN bandwagon, with companies on both sides of the Atlantic preparing to offer hotspot access to traveling passengers. [Ed. note: Would be more of a hotstreak, wouldn't it?]

U.K. train operator Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) is set to trial a three-month, free wireless LAN offering on one of its London-to-Scotland services, starting in September (see Wireless Rides the Rails).

The company has tagged Sweden’s Icomera to provide the kit, following the vendor’s previous trial success with a LINX AB service running between Gothenburg and Copenhagen.

GNER will install Icomera's Wireless Onboard Internet™ system, comprising satellite antennas mounted on the train roof, an inbuilt wireless network, and a central computer with software and switches managing the hotspot network.

If the U.K. pilot proves successful, GNER plans to launch hotspot services on 40 of its sporadically rolling stock from the beginning of next year.

“The trial will see the technology deployed throughout the whole train, though our commercial plans will examine which target markets this might be appropriate for, given the cost involved in rolling it out across the whole fleet,” says corporate affairs manager Alan Hyde.

Not one to miss a marketing opportunity, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is also in talks to trial a similar U.K. project via its Virgin Trains subsidiary and partner Broadreach Networks. [Ed. note: Too many salacious jokes here... My head is exploding!]

“We are continuing to engage with the leading providers of on-train wireless technology and will be issuing a Request For Information to them later this month as the next step in the process of selecting the best solution,” reveals Jeremy Acklam, director of information technology at Virgin Trains.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) is working with Bell Canada (NYSE/Toronto: BCE) to unwire select VIA 1 train cars traveling between Montreal and Toronto.

Analysts believe pricing will be key to the success of such projects. “The big issue is whether they go for hourly usage, unlimited, or bundle it into the price of the ticket,” opines Nick McQuire, European analyst at Pyramid Research. “If the pricing is respectable, however, the services could even put much needed pressure on some of the facilities-based hotspot providers.”

In June, German and U.K. aviation authorities gave the green light for aircraft to implement in-flight wireless LAN technologies such as those offered by Connexion by Boeing (see Roger, Tango, WLAN and WLAN: Ready for Takeoff).

— Justin Springham, Senior Editor, Europe, Unstrung
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