Wi-Fi on board for trains

I’m very excited about the Fluidity technology Fluidmesh R&D developed because it solves a real and unresolved problem to-date: connecting a passenger train with a broadband wireless link in order to provide usable and enjoyable Wi-Fi on board for passengers. Although many train operators around the globe are providing some type of Wi-Fi service on board their trains, the passenger experience is very poor. Actually, to be fair, the passenger experience is poor because passengers associate a specific user experience to the “Wi-Fi” brand and expect the same speed and user experience on a train that Wi-Fi technology provides them at home or office.

Unfortunately, the on-board Wi-Fi system on most trains is based on a cellular connection that connects the train to the cellular base stations along the track. Imagine sharing the broadband link of your I-Phone with hundreds of people: clearly Web browsing would not be particularly fast and video streaming hard to accomplish. It is sometimes funny to reads tweets of upset train passengers that typically complain about the poor Wi-Fi service offered by their train operators. However, it’s important to realize that connecting a train with a broadband wireless link and providing to the train enough throughput to deliver a real broadband experience to hundreds of passengers is very challenging. Solutions based on cellular technology to-date have not been able to solve the problem: cellular coverage is patchy particularly in rural areas and 4G/LTE technology is still in its infancy outside of largest urban areas. Moreover, cellular operations are unable to keep up with the upgrade of their technology in the rural areas as passengers keep increasing their needs and desires in terms of on-board throughput. For example, most of the systems that are used right now on trains were designed and envisioned over five years ago when passengers who needed Wi-Fi were only businesspeople using their laptops. Today, on the other hand, most passengers come on board of a train with two to three devices: a smart-phone, a laptop and a tablet like the I-Pad.

There is a major misalignment between passenger expectations and what technology is providing today. However, this creates an opportunity for a company like Fluidmesh which is based on innovation – we like to stretch the limits of technology. A problem becomes an opportunity and we invested several years of R&D work to develop a solution that is future-proof and aims entirely at satisfying passers who want to use broadband Internet on passenger trains.  Like most high performance solutions for trains, it involves a dedicated infrastructure along the track of the train (it’s a so-called track-side wireless solution). The train gets equipped with two special Fluidmesh radios devices connected on roof-top shark-fin antennas. This on-board equipment is able to roam from one track-side base station to the other without creating any disconnection to the data, voice and video streams. The system roams automatically while the train keeps travelling at up to 220 mph (350 Km/h). The solution provides 100 Mbit/sec of usable throughput that can be shared with all the passengers of the train providing a really satisfying user experience.

Train operators around the globe are considering track-side solutions because they have realized that any system based on a public and non-dedicated network such as the 4G/LTE network will unlikely be able to provide over the years the throughput required to satisfy passengers. At the same time, more studies show that Wi-Fi is becoming the most sought after service for train passengers. Surveys performed by train operators suggest that Wi-Fi is now more important to passengers than good on-board food and beverages and that passengers would be even willing to trade clean rest rooms for a proper Wi-Fi connection! As a frequent train rider, I fully appreciate it but I’ve been surprised by how many people share my feelings: having a good Wi-Fi connection means making a commute or a trip either more productive or more enjoyable. Being able to work on a train creates real value for the passengers and the companies they work for.

I’ve been meeting with the major train operators both in Europe and the U.S. for the past couple of years and they are fully aware of the critical importance of Wi-Fi connection on board their trains. Wireless Internet is not any more an added-value service but it is very often the reason to travel by train versus a car or a plane. A few years ago, we at Fluidmesh envisioned a future where being on a train travelling at 350 Km/h meant being able to work connected with the rest of the world in exactly the same way we do when at home or in the office. Using Skype, YouTube, Google Hangout and going video-streaming should not be impossible at those speeds any more.  We are proud to be the developers and inventors of the first wireless technology that made real broadband on trains possible! And, while we are working on several projects to deliver 100 Mbit/sec to today’s passenger trains we are also envisioning how to deliver 1 Gbit/sec on tomorrow’s trains.

 

Umberto Malesci

CEO and co-founder