Spotnik makes VIA trains its new hotspot

Spotnik Mobile announced a plan on Tuesday to allow VIA 1 train car passengers traveling on the Montreal-Quebec City route to have access to free wireless Internet service. For travelers that are new to wireless computing and need some guidance, or don’t have a wireless device, the program offers these services too.

At no cost to customers until March 31, 2004, VIA 1 passengers will have the option of using Spotnik’s wireless Internet service along with the use of a Wi-Fi enabled Tungsten C personal digital assistant (PDA) from palmOne Canada. The less tech savvy traveler will also have access to an on-board wireless “conductor” that will travel on the train between the two destinations.

Spotnik wanted to offer its “non-tethered” or “in-motion” Wi-Fi experience from a holistic perspective, said Mark Wolinsky, co-CEO of Spotnik in Toronto. As part of that perspective there is the service component that Spotnik can bring to the table and the device component from palmOne, which will provide people with the service on a platform that is helpful and allows the company to demonstrate the benefits including the productivity gains associated with this technology, Wolinsky added.

Wolinsky said the service will be provided on one VIA 1 car — which is wrapped in a billboard-like banner — traveling approximately three times per day between Montreal and Quebec City.

Service uptake for Wi-Fi connectivity has increased 200 per cent from where it was this time last year, Wolinsky said, adding, over the next 18 to 24 months there will be very rapid yet modest growth.

To make downtime events, such as loss of satellite, as painless as possible to users, Wolinsky said Spotnik looked at a number of different solutions that have started to emerge in the market recently.

He said that Spotnik has used a combination of technologies including satellite, code division multiple access (CDMA) and Wi-Fi to distribute the interconnectivity aboard the train.

“During periods of down time, when the service is out of range of satellite connectivity we provide the means for the user to browse through the cache content and walled garden of information that is provided by our partners,” Wolinsky explained.

“Although you may not have the connectivity at every given moment…we also provide you with additional services that allows the customer to have some connectivity and information that our partners are providing such as stock quotes, news, weather, things of that nature that are updated to the box on our train in a near real-time basis,” he added.

John Yunker, an analyst with Pyramid Research in Cambridge, Mass., said that in terms of this type of mobile connectivity, “trains are just the beginning.”

“We’re going to see commercial airlines begin launching Wi-Fi as well this year, beginning with Lufthansa. Regarding trains, the demand is particularly strong on trains that carry commuters; we are already seeing monthly subscription services for travelers on heavily traveled commuter routes. For other routes, usage tends to be more sporadic and will include leisure travelers as well,” Yunker said.

Yunker emphasized that train operators can also benefit from Wi-Fi, as they can use it to sell tickets and communicate more efficiently. “This ultimately may be the biggest benefit of all for the operators,” he added.

Yunker cautioned venue owners not to view Wi-Fi as a cash cow, but as an additional amenity — one that may provide additional revenues but may also increase occupancy. Wi-Fi, as a standalone business, Yunker said, will be tough to support as prices inevitably fall. “But Wi-Fi won’t go away.”

“I have yet to find anyone who has used Wi-Fi and voluntary given it up, it is highly addictive and we find time and again that once people have Wi-Fi laptops and other devices that they pressure the venue-owners to support their ‘addiction,'” Yunker said.

VIA rail first implemented Wi-Fi access aboard its VIA 1 trains in July of last year, when IT World Canada reported that Bell Canada had unveiled a four-month pilot project — which continues today — to offer wireless Internet access aboard its trains traveling between Montreal and Toronto.

Although Spotnik’s service is free until the end of March aboard VIA 1 train cars, the approximate price difference of a return ticket to travel between Montreal and Quebec City is roughly $56 dollars more to travel VIA 1 as opposed to economy class. The VIA 1 price tag is roughly $242 whereas economy sits at approximately $186.

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