If you know the right person, you can spend huge sums of money on expensive wireless Internet access at railway stations in the UK. Or, for the next six months, at least, you can piggyback free on the ReadyToSurf network in Virgin Trains lounges.
There is a bit of a mystery involved, however, because the plan is to provide this service on the platforms, not just in the lounges.
The Broadreach Networks service, which we foreshadowed back in January, is being trialled, at last. It has been working, unofficially, for some months, and astonished commuters in Paddington Station, London, have discovered that there was an open access point there. Now, it's official, and spreading.
Official, but not fully "available" because the period from now to September will be free. That normally has two purposes. First, it encourages people to get hooked, and second, it means that if things go wrong, you can't sue.
The first announced hotspots are in Virgin Trains' first class lounges at London Euston, Coventry, Birmingham New Street, Stoke-on-Trent and Manchester Piccadilly.
The ultimate plan, however, is far more ambitious; to provide wireless at high speed on the train itself. This trial will provide secure wireless broadband access "to any passenger who has a wireless-enabled notebook computer or PDA".
Intriguingly, the announcement claims that "it will be free of charge to passengers travelling first class for six months", which has to be a misunderstanding by someone. Clearly, they don't mean exactly what they say (that it's free if you travel for six months!) but equally, it can't be true that they have a way of telling what sort of train ticket you have, or of preventing the wireless signal from reaching people sitting outside the Virgin lounges.
And apart from that, there are open, and still free, Broadreach hotspots in over 70 stations around the UK, without any link to Virgin.
The plan, as set out by Broadreach chief Magnus McEwen-King, is to make sure that all Wi-Fi trains, when they are launched later this year, will have broadband Internet even when in a main station. "Obviously, you can't do that with satellite signals," he said recently, "so we'll have other strategies, including GPRS links, and also including our own broadband wireless hotspots in the stations."
In other words, the plan is not to restrict the wireless footprint of these hotspots. While they're free, they will be available to anybody; but even when they become paid-for, they'll still spill over onto the platforms.
Virgin is one of the higher-profile partners in the ReadyToSurf venture. Like BT Openworld, a major UK broadband provider, Virgin will allow users to charge their hotspot usage to their home phone bill, or mobile phone bill.
The usual PR statements were made at the announcement. Mark Sears, marketing manager at Virgin Trains, said: "Demand for connectivity on the move is growing rapidly, especially for our business passengers who need access seamlessly and frequently."
That was fine, but then, carelessly, he added: "At Virgin, we constantly strive to deliver the most valuable travel time for our customers" - a statement which will cause mirth amongst the travelling public, where the memories of the rail company's early years are still sharp. "We believe that the ReadytoSurf service from Broadreach will make for more productive, relaxing and entertaining journeys," he added.
Magnus McEwen-King, Broadreach Networks CEO, commented: "Our research shows that rail passengers want secure and reliable Internet access whilst on the move. By providing this service in Virgin Trains' first class lounges we are further strengthening our relationship with the Virgin group of companies, and laying foundations for the future when we will provide seamless end to end service, both on-train and at stations, for passengers travelling by Virgin Trains."
The ReadytoSurf service will be rolled out to 16 more stations on Virgin West Coast Main stations later in 2004.
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