I Like Free Wifi on The Train – But Would I rather want to Pay for it?

When Thalys started to offer Wifi service in 2009 on their trains in Europe I was ecstatic as it was working great. Over the years however, their service deteriorated to something barely usable (see here, here and here) and has remained so ever since. In contrast to their service, Internet access on high speed trains in Germany has remained mostly usable over the years. Instead of satellites, Deutsche Bahn (DB) has been using a dedicated cellular network along the railway lines and has upgraded to UMTS and LTE over the years to increase capacity. So far, the service was not free so the number of users was limited and the network has remained usable. Now, however, driven by national politics who is looking for quick and simple answers, DB needs to upgrade the system and offer it for free to all passengers. A recipe for disaster?

I’m just wondering a bit as today, paying customers alone already manage to load the train to ground backhaul link to a good degree. With hundreds of additional users per train, that system is likely to break down. The solution proposed is to use several cellular networks along the railway line for backhauling with a new on-board backhaul unit. In addition, it has been reported that a usage cap is to be put into place to prevent high bitrate streaming to eat up available resources.

That is all nice and well but I wonder if it will be enough!? A thing that strikes me a bit odd is that there is no news at all in the media if and which network operators are increasing their capacity along railway lines and who will put additional base stations close to the track to fill the coverage holes that still exist today. And what is the incentive for them for doing so? After all, the scheme succeeds or fails with a good backhaul being in place or not.

Instead of free Wifi, wouldn’t it be better if politics made incentives for cellular network operators to increase the number of their base stations along railway lines and Deutsche Bahn to improve their on-board cellular repeaters to cover more bands so customers can use cellular networks in the train directly and get what they have paid for? Free Wifi is nice but there is a saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Another thing politics could do is to make it easier for network operators to get their base station equipment installed at railway lines. This would directly foster competition among network operators.

Unfortunately that’s not the way things are going and there is little transparency of what is actually discussed and which company pays which company for what. But since public networks are used for backhauling and repeaters are being upgraded in trains anyway there is at least some hope that paying customers will benefit from direct LTE connectivity inside the train and leaving DB mostly out of the equation, except for the repeater upgrades. I keep my fingers crossed as I don’t think the ‘free for all’ and ‘network operators not being paid by the end customer’ approach is going to work out.