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Connected commuters

Feb 16, 20047 mins
Cellular NetworksNetwork SecurityTravel Apps

The business travel industry outfits planes, trains and automobiles with Wi-Fi to attract and retain new passengers in a tight market.

Think it’s cool to surf the ‘Net via a Wi-Fi hot spot while waiting to board your flight in an airport lounge? Well, the business and commuter travel industries are poised to go one better. Wireless 802.11 Internet access is coming soon to planes, cars, trains, limos, buses and even boats.

Plagued by a brutal post-Sept. 11 downturn and ongoing terrorism fears, travel providers say they hope to win customers who want their Wi-Fi. No matter what the mode of transport, attracting new passengers and retaining old passengers is paramount.

“This is a value-add for the passenger,” says Craig Mathias, principal at consulting firm Farpoint Group. Business travelers will go out of their way to pick a flight or train that has reasonably priced Internet access, Mathias says – not having to face a pile of e-mail later is a huge benefit.

The business case is unclear. Neither carriers nor wireless vendors are certain how much passengers will be willing to pay or of the ROI for necessary infrastructure spending. But that hardly dims Wi-Fi’s bright outlook for business travel and commuting. “Even if it doesn’t turn out to be profitable, it’s still increasing ridership,” says Phil Solis, senior analyst at ABI Research.

Wi-Fi trials are springing up all over the globe, from Bay Area commuter trains to a Boston luxury coach. European carriers are somewhat ahead of their U.S. counterparts. France is well into the process of rolling out Wi-Fi Internet access on its high-speed TGV train.

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As Wi-Fi test markets go, the region from San Francisco up to Oakland is prime turf. The tech-savvy passengers here are likely to tote laptops with Wi-Fi adapters. It was therefore natural that PointShot Wireless last year approached the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA), the agency that operates a commuter train through Silicon Valley, to begin a Wi-Fi pilot. Launched last October, the yearlong trial is a partnership with the California Department of Transportation and the University of California at Berkeley.

PointShot offered a sweet deal: At no charge, the company would install its RailPoint Server, a proprietary product that combines several types of modems, an 802.11b access point, router and content cache, and a variety of antennas, both inside and on top of the train car. PointShot would manage the system from its network operating center in Ottawa.

Transparent to the commuters, the type of WAN used to connect the car’s wireless LAN to the Internet would switch from a cellular data network to a satellite network, depending on which method provided the best performance at the moment. “We have not spent any pocket money on this, just my time,” says Jim Allison, senior planner for the Bay Area Rapid Transit, part of the CCJPA. “We’re very happy we looked as attractive as we did [as a candidate for the pilot].” PointShot declined to disclose how much it invested in the Capitol Corridor pilot.

Users need only to turn on their Wi-Fi-enabled laptops, log on through a Web page and begin working – configuration issues are minimal. So far, Wi-Fi access is available on just one train in the whole route, and that car could be anywhere on the line so passengers can’t plan on using the service on a given day. “That’s one of the most unfortunate things about this,” Allison says. Otherwise, usage and feedback on the service, now offered for free, have been good.

Performance has been reliable if not lightning fast. “[Data access speeds] are faster than 56K [bit/sec] typically but not as fast as DSL or cable. Everyone is spoiled with high-speed Internet at home and at work,” he says.

PointShot President and CEO Shawn Griffin says Wi-Fi speed on the train has averaged about 400K bit/sec per user, which degrades somewhat as more passengers go online. Performance is “better than dial-up,” he says, but acknowledges the need to manage user expectations. “People shouldn’t expect they’re going to be streaming video from CNN. Not this year. Maybe next,” Griffin says.

According to Allison, the cellular WAN is the bottleneck. Next-generation cellular technology is expected to improve performance. In addition to satellite, other WAN transport modes include terrestrial microwave networks.

Allison and his colleagues are putting out an RFP for a vendor to operate the train’s wireless concession, handling the entire Wi-Fi service. “We’re learning about the business model at this point. We know the service works. We don’t really know how much people will pay for it,” Allison says. He does not expect to outlay any cash for Wi-Fi infrastructure but anticipates the state of California will share revenue with the wireless concessionaire some time down the road.

As the launch customer for Connexion by Boeing, Lufthansa German Airlines is arguably further along with wireless than any other airline. Boeing announced its Connexion Wi-Fi service in 2000, and many airlines were quick to jump on board. The terrorist attacks in 2001 caused almost all of them to scale back. “We were the only one to stick with our plans,” says Michael Lamberty, manager at Lufthansa in Frankfurt, Germany.

This quarter, Lufthansa will begin a two-year rollout of the service, dubbed Lufthansa FlyNet, on its long-haul fleet. The airline will offer news and weather content on its portal free of charge to users. Connection charges to the rest of the Web will be about $25 to $35 per session, according to Stan Deal, vice president of global network sales for Connexion by Boeing.

While air travelers who used Wi-Fi on Connexion by Boeing pilots seemed unfazed by those prices, that rate would be too high for those on the ground. “We would never be able to support a price of $35 per session,” says Doug Werdebaugh, senior vice president of U.S. operations for Carey International, a Washington, D.C., limousine service. The 5,000-car company is testing Wi-Fi access through InMotion Technology on one car in six major metropolitan markets, including New York and Boston.


The transportation sector in North America spent $10.5 billion on IT in 2003, says IDC. That sum includes $636 million for servers, $762 million on client systems, $600 million on peripherals and storage, $740 million on network equipment, $2.55 billion on packaged software, and $5.2 billion on IT services.

Business airfares will increase 5% in 2004 to an average of $1,273, according to the National Business Travel Association.

The pilot has been successful enough for Carey to already begin outfitting the rest of the fleet with service. Werdebaugh is not convinced Wi-Fi access is imperative for its riders, 70% of whom are businesspeople. Still, he says adding access is part of the firm’s history of innovating, such as when the company was the first to offer air-conditioned car service in 1921.

The business model remains cloudy at this stage, but it is only a matter of time before the players figure out what the market will bear. Mathias of Farpoint Group says it will take another two to three years for Wi-Fi access to become widespread in these markets. “Once people start using wireless, they don’t want to go back. The vendors and carriers will come up with interesting pricing models that will get just about every road warrior online,” he says.

Paul is a freelance writer in Waban, Mass. She can be reached at