Amtrak confirmed Allison’s expectations of Wi-Fi popularity; Lenetta McCampbell, Amtrak’s senior director of Onboard Systems with overall responsibility for their national Wi-Fi program, made clear that Wi-Fi was considered a central part of Amtrak’s product offering. The technology would, she said, place Amtrak in a more competitive position and contribute to increasing incremental revenue and ridership, while providing a communications backbone on trains for future passenger and business applications.
Since the launch of free Wi-Fi on the Acela service between Boston and Washington, D.C., in March 2010, Amtrak has seen an astonishing 47% uptake among its passengers; that’s up from 35% in 2010. More than 130,000 users access the system from more than 250,000 devices every month, illustrating that many passengers have more than one IP-based device with Wi-Fi – be it smartphone, tablet or laptop.
Thanks to effective marketing, 80% of Acela customers were aware that Wi-Fi was available prior to traveling, while 89% of Acela customers said that onboard Wi-Fi service added value to the Amtrak trip experience. This is despite the fact that some passengers had found ways to bypass built-in blocking mechanisms to limit video streaming and large downloads, said McCampbell, and Amtrak is implementing a fair usage policy to tackle this.
To cater for demand, Amtrak is also augmenting available bandwidth by adding Wi-Fi at stations backhauled over wired networks with throughput of up to 100 Mbps. This will enable a true broadband experience for passengers at locations with high boarding volumes, and where cellular signals are restricted inside buildings such as Penn Station.
Figure 2 – Wi-Fi Benefits [Source: Amtrak] Learning from the Acela experience, Amtrak now has a better long-term view of service improvements such as a move to LTE for backhaul in some regions by 2013, and of leveraging the wireless service for generating advertising revenues and delivering passenger information.
The national Wi-Fi roll-out commenced in 2011 with systems being installed on a further 621 rail cars, which will lead to coverage of 70% of Amtrak’s ridership with a common experience on every train. Ultimately, said McCampbell, it is Amtrak’s desire to help establish a North American Wi-Fi Usage Policy that create a common standard for reporting of key performance indicators, system functionality such as fair usage and rate limiting, and “a shared set of priorities [among transportation agencies] to help vendors focus their efforts and resources.”
It’s clear that while free Wi-Fi is a driver, many TOCs are looking far beyond basic Internet connectivity for passengers. Cor ven der Hoop of Dutch railway provider NS Trains shared the progress his company is making with its On Board Information Services, or ORBIS. The GPS-based system delivers real-time information via multimedia, including in-train screens, the Wi-Fi hotspot landing page, and on train-side displays (see Figure 3).
Figure 3 – ORBIS System Topology [Source: NS Trains] The system is deployed on around 100 trains today serving more than 225,000 passengers daily, with a goal of equipping almost 400 trains by the end of 2013 and reaching NS’s daily ridership of more than 625,000 passengers. NS has been providing Internet access to passengers for some time in partnership with T-Mobile and has seen a 7 to 10% uptake among passengers, with an average session time of 40 minutes and around 10MB download traffic per session.
Henry Hyde-Thomson of on-train systems provider 21Net announced a recent $10.5 million round of funding for his company led by Innovacom, the VC arm of France Telecom. Net21 outlined their IPTV service for high speed trains using a combination of cellular and satellite technologies, and which is being deployed by new Italian TOC NTV to deliver real-time news, sports and TV from SkyItalia. The solution will be integrated into 25 all-new Alstom AGV trains that will feature an impressive Cinema Car with multiple 19” screens, in-seat audio and personal 9” touchscreens.
SJ, Sweden’s state-owned rail provider, also plans to offer infotainment services onboard its trains, although using server-based media located on the train rather that using satellite-based TV services. Paul Brindley, commercial director of Heathrow Express (HEx), provided a compelling holistic approach to the use of digital media to drive business. HEx is a rail service between London Paddington Station and Heathrow Airport. At just 15 minutes the journey is short yet the TOC has been offering free (originally paid) Wi-Fi to its 5.5 million annual travelers since March 2007, and sees almost 250,000 users a month.