Vice-president, Parsons Corp.

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Travellers aboard VIA Rail’s Quebec City-Windsor corridor route will now have more than scenery and solitaire to keep them occupied as Canada’s national passenger rail service has introduced Wi-Fi access aboard its trains.

All that is needed to access the network is a Wi-Fi-enabled device such as a laptop or PDA.

These devices automatically detect the network and, once login is complete, users are able to surf the Internet, check e-mails or enter their company’s corporate network as if they were at home or at the office, said Keith Dunbar vice-president of Parsons Corp., an engineering firm from Pasedena, Calif. that VIA Rail partnered with to provide the wireless infrastructure.

“Each car of the train acts as a moving hotspot,” said Dunbar. He added that a server is installed in the front car of the train that is then linked to the hotspots in the other cars. Dunbar said a total of 160 cars along the corridor will be equipped with access points. Each car of the train acts as a moving hotspot.Keith Dunbar>Text

Parsons Corp. used wireless technology from Ottawa-based PointShot Wireless for the on-train communications hardware and connectivity management. Opti-Fi Networks Ltd., a subsidiary of Parsons, provided the Wi-Fi access service.

In addition to the trains, 22 stations along the corridor will be equipped with hotspots. Seven Panorama Lounges (waiting area for first class passengers) at train stations in Montreal, Toronto and Quebec City will also offer Wi-Fi.

Transmission speeds of the Wi-Fi network in urban centres are 3Mbps for downloads and 300Kbps for uploads. In rural areas, the connection speed is 1Mbps for downloads and 100Mbps for uploads. The connection speed between a user’s computer and the train’s server is 11Mbps, Dunbar said.

He added that the network switches between a cellular 1xRTT (3G wireless) network, satellite or Wi-Fi depending on which is the best option relative to the environment the train is in.

“For example, a tall building could partially impede the signal, so the server switches from cellular to satellite as appropriate,” Dunbar said. The satellite and cellular transport is located in Hamilton, Ont.

As well, he said no network disruptions occur when a train goes through a tunnel. The roof has an antenna that connects to the network via an antenna in the tunnels.

Dunbar also previewed media content that will eventually be available on the VIA Wi-Fi network. Plans include users being able to wirelessly stream games, television programs, music and movies to their laptops.

Prior to the announcement, VIA Rail tested a Wi-Fi network in business class cars of certain trains for the past two years. Steve Del Bosco, chief customer officer for VIA Rail, said the trial indicated that passengers not only wanted Wi-Fi but also that the service would be successful if expanded. “Even before we did a trial, the train was perceived by customers to be a great place to work or relax because it offers an uninterrupted block of time, unlike going through a busy airport,” he said. “What wireless does is it gives customers another option on what to do (while travelling),” Del Bosco added.

Currently, the Wi-Fi network is only available in VIA 1 class (first class) cars on the Montreal-Quebec City route and the Montreal-Toronto morning and afternoon express trains. By the end of April, Wi-Fi will be available to all VIA 1 passengers in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. By the end of 2006, comfort class (economy) will also have access to the wireless network. The cost of the service is $3.99 for 15 minutes of Internet access plus 30 cents per additional minute. Travellers can also pay $8.95 for 24-hour access or $46 for monthly access.

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