Bell equips trains with Wi-Fi access

In an announcement made at Toronto’s Union Station on Wednesday, Bell Canada unveiled a four-month pilot project to equip select VIA 1 train cars with wireless Internet access and free wireless local area networking (WLAN) to VIA riders.

The WLAN, which is based on 802.11b technology, offers train travelers a connection speed that is comparable to that of a dial-up connection, or about 56Kbps.

Almis Ledas, vice-president of corporate development at Bell Mobility, said trains have been overlooked for Wi-Fi access due to factors including the thick outer shell on train cars, which shield radio signals from reaching passengers, and the great expense associated with the deployment.

According to Bell Canada, the service works by transmitting Internet signals down to the train from Bell ExpressVu’s Internet satellite to onboard equipment and then to the end user’s WLAN-enabled device. Messages from the end user’s device are then transmitted back up to the train’s WLAN equipment and delivered over Bell Mobility’s 1X network to the Internet.

Ledas added that passengers aboard the equipped VIA 1 trains don’t need to concern themselves with how it happens, just that the service is available.

“In other words, turn on your wireless device, search for the Bell network and simply connect,” he said.

Wednesday’s announcement is an addition to Bell’s AccessZone project, a Wi-Fi hotspot pilot launched in December 2002 designed to provide Canadian companies with wireless access to Internet service.

Since the start of the pilot late last year, Kerry Eberwein, general manager for cabling and WLAN solutions at Bell Canada, said the company has been collecting data on hotspot users.

Eberwein’s data concludes that the busiest hotspots have been train stations and airports. It also indicates that new users have doubled since the beginning of the pilot and usage significantly drops on weekends.

He added that hotspots such as train stations are popular because “people would rather get work done while on the road, versus when they get home.”

Another key element to Bell’s announcement, according to Eberwein, is branding and marketing. He said that making hotspot locations visible is critical to the success of the project.

Doug Cooper, country manager for Intel Corp.