Connections +

Chugging and Surfing

The acronym could be "PMWLAN"... or you could just call it "Cool."

October 1, 2003  

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Last issue, in a column on places where public wireless local area networks (WLANs) make good sense, I wrote (and I quote): “I do not yet have a wireless LAN in my home office, but by the time this column goes to print I expect I will.”

Sure enough, it took about a week for the heat and humidity to drive me out of the home office and into the computer store, and I’m now WLAN-enabled and loving it.

The timing was fortuitous, as shortly after I got untethered, Bell Canada invited a gaggle of media and analysts to bum-test – literally – Canada’s first public mobile wireless local area network. Call it a PMWLAN if you must: I’ll just call it “cool”.

We convened at VIA Rail’s business-class lounge in Toronto Union Station and after the sandwiches and carrot sticks were consumed, the speeches spoken and presentations pointed at powerfully, backs slapped, hands shaken (you get the idea), we headed trackside for the main event: a round-trip train ride to VIA’s Mimico Yard in west Toronto aboard one of the rail operator’s four specially-equipped VIA-1 cars.

Bell and VIA provided laptops, but some of us brought our own. We parked ourselves in the chairs, booted the laptops, picked our wireless network from a pull-down menu, and before the train left the station we were on the ‘Net.

In a nutshell, getting to the point where I could use the system was astonishingly simple.

So what’s the big deal? Anyone in wireless knows ease of use at the customer level is inversely proportional to the pile of technology in the shadows. In this case, the wizard was definitely busy behind the curtain.

Rail cars are nasty environments for RF: They move fast, they vibrate, they are exposed to the elements and, worst of all from a wireless perspective, they are big metal boxes that block radio waves.

To address that, these cars — easily spotted with their special advertising wrap — are fitted with a number of special data communications systems.

First, there’s the wireless LAN (also called a hotspot), which is located inside the car. It talks to a passenger’s 802.11b-equipped devices and manages multiple sessions while making sure everybody gets a piece of the bandwidth. It also caches information so that if the train passes through an area where it has no network signal, the passenger’s data isn’t lost.

The hotspot is connected to a roof-mounted antenna array. One antenna tracks a Bell satellite, and provides most of the connectivity. Another talks to the 1xRTT high-speed mobile packet data network, and acts as a back-up in case the satellite is not in sight: for example, when the rail car is under Union Station’s metal train shed.

Like any good high-tech trial, this one required many fingers in the pie to realize. Bell Mobility’s Wireless R&D Accelerator stick-handled the project, bringing the various parties to the table. Bell ExpressVu, Bell Mobility, VIA Rail and Ottawa-based PointShot Wireless contributed networks, technology and – of course – trains. And the VIA venture is part of Bell’s larger hotspot trial, branded Bell AccessZone.

The result? What was once a four-hour black hole (admittedly welcome by some) has become an opportunity to catch up on e-mails, exchange files with corporate servers, conduct web-based research and more. And unlike the office, the only interruption is the welcome distraction of executive decisions appropriate to first-class train travel: Would you like a newspaper? Will that be beef, chicken or salmon for dinner? Red or white… or another Bloody Caesar, perhaps?

The hotspot-enabled VIA cars are now in regular service on Trains 53 and 66, allowing business travelers to surf while they chug between Toronto and Montreal. The free trial runs until the end of this year — so grab your laptop and book a seat.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached (now even when he’s on the train) at 416-878-7730 or

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