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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 October 2005, 17:57 GMT 18:57 UK
Rail internet access picks up speed
By Bill Wilson
BBC News business reporter

Nomad Digital's Graeme Lowdon at East Croydon on the London-Brighton route
Mr Lowdon is behind train operator Southern's broadband access

A pair of entrepreneurial telecoms experts look set to profit from the next generation of rail travel, after cracking what they say is the secret of providing fast internet connections for passengers on the move.

Rail companies across the world are keen to develop wireless broadband connections for their carriages, as it encourages business travellers to use the train rather than other forms of transport.

If passengers are able to plug into their company networks, surf the net, and send and receive emails, then they can utilise what otherwise might be 'dead' travelling time.

Train operator GNER already provides internet connections, using mobile phone and satellite links to provide connections for laptops - most of which are wireless enabled these days - when the train is moving.

And Virgin Trains offers wi-fi access in its first class lounges in stations.

However, Graeme Lowdon and Nigel Wallbridge, founding partners of Nomad Digital, say they can provide faster speeds on the move by using a wireless system called Wimax - touted by many as the successor to wi-fi.

'High-speed connections'

The challenge until now has been to provide broader bandwidth - so that all those on board a train who want to use it as an "office on the move" are able to remain connected at all times, and able to send and receive large data packets, at speed.

As well as boosting passenger numbers, having wireless connections providing fast broadband access brings other advantages to train operators, such as providing streaming CCTV security pictures and allowing onboard systems to be checked in 'real time'.

With things that have a big market but are difficult to do, if you crack it then it opens real opportunities
Graeme Lowdon, Nomad

Mr Lowdon and Mr Wallbridge believe they provide a "genuine broadband experience" for vehicles on the move, even trains travelling at speeds of more than 100 miles an hour.

Mr Lowdon put his mind to communications on railways back in 2001, after realising it was one of the last potential workplaces not speedily connected to the internet.

"We saw an opportunity to provide high-speed data connectivity to moving vehicles such as trains," Mr Lowdon, 40, whose firm is based in Corbridge, Northumberland, recalls.

"There are thousands of trains around the world, but few, if any, had a data connection to the outside world.

"We saw this as one of the last areas that was devoid of any real useful data connection."

'Real opportunities'

The pair set out to provide constant data sessions for the entire length of a train journey, at high broadband speeds.

"What attracted us to it is that it is difficult to do," he says.

"With things that have a big market but are difficult to do, if you crack it then it opens real opportunities."

A train from the Southern fleet
There are Wimax 'base stations' along the 60 mile train route

This year the company was approached by train operator Southern to provide broadband on its Brighton to London express, which Nomad now says makes it the world's "fastest" railway for onboard internet access.

The service works by the installation of wi-fi access points within the train's carriages, which are in turn connected to 37 Wimax (another type of wireless 'protocol' or language) base stations at train stations and locations along the 60 mile route.

"It is like a corridor of radio coverage running alongside the track," says Mr Lowdon.

This allows information to be sent and received at speeds of up to 36 mega bits per second (18 times faster than standard domestic broadband internet access), and means signals are not lost in tunnels, under bridges or in sidings.

It is more capital intensive than a satellite operation
Ian Fogg, Jupiter Research

"The base stations are not yet rolled out completely along the route, we are currently filling in the gaps," says Mr Lowdon.

"For the 10-15 second gaps in coverage the system reverts to using 3G, but users should not notice any great difference."

The service is provided through T-Mobile, who offer wireless services to their customers.

Underground operators

Nomad says it has had inquiries from other rail operators in the UK and Europe, including Holland and Poland, and approaches from firms in Australia and US.

The fact it does not lose signals in tunnels or under bridges has also led to inquiries from underground rail operators.

As well as bigger bandwidth, Mr Lowdon says his firm's system is faster - has a lower latency in tech-speak - than one which uses a satellite system.

Nigel Wallbridge
Nomad's Nigel Wallbridge has helped develop wireless connections

"Our system allows people to run newer applications on data networks, such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) where people use internet connections to make phone calls.

"That lets train customers use their laptops to ring up people across the world and talk to them for nothing."

The system can deliver real-time security CCTV and also allow operators to see where all their trains are at any one time.

'Slow roll-out'

Analyst Ian Fogg, at new technology research firm Jupiter, says: "The standard system is to use wi-fi within the train, which is built into most laptops as standard.

"The tricky thing is providing a fast and continuous access and connection. Someone sitting with a laptop can access some types of data across a mobile phone network, but they don't usually have continuous access.

"Satellite can't work in tunnels, it also has a poor latency."

Mr Fogg says Wimax is an evolving technology that is "very fast, has a lower latency, higher capacity, and more people in the train can use it at one time".

"However, with Wimax you need to have base stations - in that sense it is akin to a mobile network, you have to depend on these base stations.

"You also have to have a number of relays in tunnels. That makes it more capital intensive than a satellite arrangement."

And Peter Kingsland, an expert at wireless consultancy BWCS, adds: "Using the Wimax system you have a very slow trackside roll-out."

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