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Gov Reveals FREE WiFi on UK Trains to Deliver Just 1Mbps Per Passenger

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016 (11:38 am) - Score 1,141
uk train

The Government’s effort to roll-out “high speedMobile Broadband to most train commuters by 2019 and WiFi to many of the busiest parts of Britain’s rail network by 2017/18 has been criticised after it was revealed that the on-board WiFi contract only required a speed of 1Mbps per passenger.

The Department for Transport has been working to improve on-board Internet connectivity for several years (here, here, here and here) and the Government’s Minister of State for Digital & Culture, Matthew Hancock MP, recently offered an interesting update on progress.

The bad news is that they’ve set a rather low bar for broadband performance, but the good news is that it’s designed to improve.

Matthew Hancock MP said (Debate on the Digital Economy Bill):

“Requiring free wi-fi on trains has been undertaken through new franchises and implemented also in existing franchises. The obligation to provide free wi-fi is now secured in 10 of the 15 franchises and we forecast that more than 90% of passenger journeys will have access to wi-fi by the end of 2018 and almost 100% by 2020. There have been further programmes, such as the superconnected cities programme. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley says she wants to press us to achieve all we can, and we accept the challenge.

For all new franchises, the current specifications will require a minimum of 1 megabit per second per passenger, which allows for web browsing, basic email and social media activity. Crucially, this is set to increase by 25% every year with a focus on ensuring that it is reliable and consistent because dropped calls or frequent breaks in ability to access wi-fi are seriously frustrating.

There are even stronger bids in some competitions. For example, the East Anglia franchise, which I use a lot, will provide up to 100 megabits per second to the train by 2019, then 500 megabits per second by 2021 and 1 gigabit per second by the end of 2021 on key intercity routes, not least the Norwich in 90 and Ipswich in 60 plans. That is totally brilliant and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes for making it happen.”

It’s worth pointing out that the figure of 1Mbps is hardly a surprise, particularly given the technical challenges of maintaining such a connection on a fast moving mode of transport (well.. sometimes they’re “fast moving“).

The figure of 1Mbps also reflects a flexible minimum level, which we’d assume must be associated with a designated average number of typical passengers and active connections per journey. So outside of the busiest hours commuters may perhaps expect something faster, albeit perhaps not astoundingly so.

On top of that we are talking about a “free” service and as such we can hardly expect to get superfast speeds on every trip. On the other hand the price of a ticket today can often be incredibly expensive and so the concept of “free” may have a different meaning to those who rely upon trains for daily commutes.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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15 Responses
  1. Avatar john

    1mbps!

    I recently went on a cross country train in first class and was lucky to get that even!

    • Avatar skep-tik-al

      According to Wikipedia the capacity of the trains used by Cross Country are:

      Class 220 ‘Voyager’ 26 first class, 174 standard class = 200 seats

      Class 221 ‘Super Voyager’ 26 first class, 162 or 224 standard class = up to 250 seats

      So ignoring both of the fairly significant considerations that a) there may be more people than seats and b) not everyone will use the wifi, does anyone know if the Class 220 and 221 trains are provided with 200+ mbit of connectivity that can be used for some, if not all, of the routes which they travel on? 😉

    • Avatar john

      Well I use it as it’s free in first class. Unlike Great Western where it’s free for everyone

    • Avatar skep-tik-al

      Unfortunately for the TOC’s they appear to be required to provide “a speed of 1Mbps per passenger” rather than per first class passenger…

      But as the quote in the article goes on to say that “stronger bids.. will provide up to 100 megabits per second to the train by 2019” so unless they plan to reduce the trains to only two carriages, this seems likely to fall far short of the required speed.

      Of course it couldnt possibly be the case that these figures we selected without any consideration for what may actually be possible, especially given the struggle to maintain ever a strong enough 2G signal to have an inteligable conversation on part of “many of the busiest parts of Britain’s rail network” 😐

  2. Avatar TheFacts

    What does the contract actually say?

  3. Avatar Jared

    I’ll take 1 Mbps if it actually consistently delivers a rock solid 1 Mbps for the whole journey.

    • Avatar john

      Not sure – but my wifi was working the other day whilst sat in a tunnel waiting to go into Bath Spa.. so I assume they have wifi’d the tunnels also.

  4. Avatar wirelesspacman

    Unfortunately, “1 megabit per second per passenger” is a pretty meaningless statistic unless/until it is fully defined. For example, a constant 1 Mbps will consume over 300 Gigabytes a month, which would be ample for “average” passengers today in my view.

    • Agreed, which is why we mention the need for it to be associated with a designated average number of typical passengers or active connections per journey (anything to offer some depth really). But as usual nobody outside of the Government gets to see the contract details, which is where the devil always hides.

  5. Avatar Paul Ramsden

    High speed refers to the train not the WiFi. Only joking.

  6. Avatar Optimist

    They need to get rid of these ridiculous on-line forms in very small font demanding personal information. The argument that this is justfied because the service is “free” is absurd as users have already paid for it in the price of the train ticket.

  7. Avatar TheFacts

    Maybe someone with experience of network design can propose what bandwidth per passenger is appropriate.

  8. Avatar mike

    Last time I used train wifi it was a satellite connection with a base station in Sweden. It was extremely slow and unreliable. I’ve tethered to my phone ever since and it’s a much better experience. The mobile networks have good coverage along all the major train lines now.

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