Government-funded Wi-Fi on trains: who benefits?

“Industry sources” have told The Guardian they expect the 2013 budget to include money to install wireless networks in trains, allowing commuters and travellers to get online with non-cellular devices. Currently, less than half of the UK’s 25 rail franchises offer internet onboard. It’s unclear whether the government plans to fund Wi-Fi on all trains, or whether it intends to make wireless internet access free across subsidised services.

As The Guardian points out, pricing for Wi-Fi access on British trains is currently in a state of disarray. It can be free - travellers on the Heathrow Express don’t have to pay a penny, for example, and passengers on the Chilterns mainline also benefit from free web access. Very often, though, internet access is either locked down to everyone, or provided free only to passengers who have coughed up for first-class tickets.

Virgin Trains makes passengers in the cheap seats pay an outrageous £4 per hour. Elsewhere, frequent commuters can pay Greater Anglia trains £209 per year for Wi-Fi access, while East Midlands Trains makes a statement by allowing first-class users online for free, but charging those in standard seats £299 per year. Of the nine rail franchises that offer internet access, four ask for money in return.

There are two questions the government will need to answer. The first is who will pay? Rail franchises in modern Britain are private businesses, after all, and it seems odd that they might receive public money to improve their services. For example, you don’t see the government splashing out on new in-flight services for British Airways. A government bung for internet access that is passed on as a for-profit perk rather than as a benefit for all will be hard to spin to the majority of passengers who travel in standard class.

The second question is whether the service will work at all. Wi-Fi on trains is delivered by a system of 802.11 repeaters spread through a train, but the internet comes in via a 3G signal, meaning internet access is only as good as the signal areas the train passes through. Editor Barry Collins has two words to say about Southern Railways’ abortive attempts to introduce Wi-Fi to its trains in 2005, one of which is "shambles" and the other I leave to the fertile imagination of PC Pro’s grown-up readers.

As anyone who’s had an internet connection drop halfway through an important download, VoIP call or particularly exciting episode of Doctor Who will tell you, a flaky internet connection is sometimes worse than none at all. Let’s hope that, if the government does splash out on on-board Wi-Fi, it won’t just be the train companies that benefit.

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