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Wi-fi at 320 km/h

06 May 2008

FRANCE: SNCF is investing in satellite-based on-train internet access to give its TGVs a competitive edge in the liberalised passenger market after 2010. Jean-Paul Masse reports

Paris Est. It is 08.26 on March 26 and the Lyria TGV to Zürich is pulling out as usual. But this morning something is different on board. In both first and second class, many passengers are working with their laptop computers. Most of them are linked to the internet, receiving and sending e-mails or browsing the web, just as if they were at home or in their office.

They are some of the first international passengers to benefit from a €19m development project to provide wi-fi internet access on all TGV Est services by 2010. Officially still a full-scale pilot project, this was the biggest single item in SNCF's 2007 research budget, according to Frank Bernard, director of SNCF International. As a first step, wi-fi was made available on two domestic TGV sets in December. The equipping of a TGV POS unit has now allowed SNCF to extend the trial to the Basel - Baden - Zürich route in Switzerland.

Mireille Faugère, Director of Voyageurs France-Europe at SNCF, believes that high speed wi-fi is a way for TGVs to gain market share, both in France and abroad, as well as raising the stakes for would-be competitors. 'This service is a major differentiating factor, two years ahead of the market opening up to competition', she says.

Although only three sets are currently fitted, the on-board equipment is due to be rolled out across 52 TGV sets by 2010, allowing SNCF to offer wi-fi facilities at up to 320 km/h over approximately 2 000 route-km in eastern France, Germany and Luxembourg, apart a from few kilometres of the old line through the Vosges, near the Saverne pass, where the mountains and deep cuttings block reception.

Satellite connection

The wi-fi facility uses a different technology from that provided on Thalys trains. After the failure of an initial trial with GPRS, SNCF invited international tenders for development of an alternative system. The winning consortium brings together telecommunications company Orange, Capgemini, responsible for data processing, satellite operator Eutelsat and Alstom Transport.

Primary coverage is provided from Eutelsat's Atlantic Bird 2 satellite. Eutelsat has developed a directional aerial, which connects with the satellite regardless of the curvature and cant of the line. This aerial is designed to work under the extreme conditions found in the rail environment: speed, vibrations, a wide temperature range, electromagnetic interference, and so on. It is mounted on the roof of the TGV, using a housing developed by Alstom to resist the physical constraints of operation at speeds up to 320 km/h.

However, satellite coverage cannot be provided throughout the route, in particular in stations where the train may be under cover. To ensure a continuous connection, the system automatically connects with existing wi-fi hot spots at stations if the link between satellite and aerial is lost. The connection with the satellite is automatically restored as the TGV leaves the station.

The system has been designed to accept up to 50 users at the same time. Out on the main line, the transmission rate is 20 MB. Where the satellite link is not available, the upload from train to ground is restricted to 512 kB whilst the download from ground to train is just 2 MB.

On-board servers are fitted in car 3 of each trainset, connected by WLAN to two ceiling-mounted wi-fi access points in each coach. Data transmission between the vehicles is provided by redundant radio 'bridges', but SNCF says provision has been made to upgrade these to fixed cables if necessary.

User experience

What does a customer see when he switches on his computer? If the laptop is fitted with wi-fi capability, it immediately identifies the on-board equipment, and the customer is invited to log in. Customers who have used the facility during a previous journey will be recognised, and will eventually benefit from an offer tailored to their preference. After signing on, users are taken to a dedicated home page portal available in three languages - French, English and German. From here, the user can navigate to other web sites as required.

The dedicated TGV portal offers a variety of services and travel information, including a geographic location system developed by Capgemini with the support of TBWA and Textuel. This provides a map showing journey progress in real time, together with the current speed of the train. The maps also display details of attractions alongside the route. From the portal, it is also possible to watch videos, or consult a range of on-board information services: AFP news bulletins selected by Orange, weather forecasts, plus business, sport and other cultural features.

During the test phase, the service is being offered free of charge. SNCF is considering whether to introduce a charge once the facility is rolled out more widely. This might be included in the ticket price, or charged separately; it could also be possible to pay online, but nothing has been decided yet. Other operators are also looking at the pricing issue, but it is perhaps worth noting that between 60% and 70% of passengers on TGV Est are leisure or tourist travellers. This is very different from the Thalys market, where more than two-thirds of the passengers are making business trips.

  • CAPTION: The satellite aerial is mounted on the roof of the train, and two ceiling-mounted access points are fitted in each vehicle.