Broadband to Trains

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In this project 21Net designed, built and trialled a Wi-Fi access system for use on trains with the capability to support broadband internet and intranet access as well as local multimedia content such as short films, up-to-the minute news, etc. The initial target market is high-speed trains in Western Europe where journey times allow for its use.


The 21Net system addresses the needs of train passengers, especially business passengers, and allows them to access the internet, their email and corporate VPNs. In addition there is a perceived need for a variety of entertainment that could be readily provided from on board servers to those passengers with wireless equipped laptops. These user needs have been established by market research and the analysis of other services that have been offered on some trains (such as DVD player rental on Eurostar trains, seatback video screens in D Bahn ICE, etc).


21Net expects to be the satellite-to-wifi service provider occupying the central role in the Service Value Chain.  
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The key issues to be addressed in the project are:


  • Availability of low-profile two-way Ku-band tracking antennas at an appropriate cost (for example, the phased array antennas used by Connexions by Boeing at a cost of $1.3 million each are not appropriate).


  • Meeting the stringent safety requirements of high speed train operators.
  • Operating in the adverse EMC environment of the train power systems (75,000 volt overhead cables, sparking pantograph, variable power systems, etc).

The main benefit of 21Net's solution is the provision of a business-class broadband internet access to customers in a reliable and cost effective manner. The emphasis is on providing a quality service rather than the intermittent, low bandwidth service that a GPRS-enabled laptop user might suffer today.


In particular, the use of two-way Ku-band satellite transmission enables 21Net to deliver high bandwidth (2MBit/s by 512kBit/s) uncontended connectivity to the train which will be shared by (say) 50 simultaneous users. This puts 21Net in an entirely different class to existing competitor systems, which rely on narrowband (56kBit/s) GPRS connections which are then shared between the simultaneous users on the train.


The 21Net system architecture is based on two-way Ku-band satellite transmission to provide connectivity between the internet backbone and a master server on the train. Direct reception of satellite television channels on the same satellite is also possible but has not been trialled in this project. 

A hub earth station provides the connection from the Internet backbone (and from the network operations centre) via the satellite directly to a low-profile tracking antenna on the train. GPRS and Wi-Fi access between the train and available networks is also provided (e.g. in stations and in tunnels).


On the train, Wi-Fi (wireless LAN) connections are used between the master server and customers with Wi-Fi enabled laptops and PDAs.

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The project started on 1st March 2004 with the Baseline Design Review one month later. Initial technical trials in Spain followed in the summer of 2004, leading to an 8-month pilot utilisation phase on a Thalys train in 2005, initially operating on the Paris-Brussels route and then later on the Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam route. Following completion of the trials in December 2005 the project was concluded at the beginning of 2006.

Current status

The project started on 1st March 2004 with the Baseline Design Review one month later.


Initially two sessions of pre-testing the 21Net service were carried out on a Renfe high speed train in Spain. These were carried out over two separate three day periods in June and July 2004. The pre-testing was witnessed both by ESA and by representatives of various high speed train operating companies.


The 21Net hardware was installed on the Renfe Control Coach, a test laboratory carriage that can be included within a conventional high speed (300km/hour) train set, and comprised:

  • The On Roof Antenna System,
  • The Antenna Controller,
  • The Satellite Modem,
  • The Wi-Fi in-train distribution system,

The service was managed remotely by the back-office system located in northern Europe.

The satellite link with the train was maintained at 4MBit/s downlink and 2MBit/s uplink, with 10 users stressing the system to the maximum extent possible via Wi-Fi enabled laptops (downloading large files, streaming videos, etc). More formal testing and data logging was also carried out.


The general user perception was that we had indeed achieved the desired "business class" level of Wi-Fi service, albeit with a number of issues which have since been resolved.


We believe that 21Net/Renfe's pilot trials represented:

  • The World's first demonstration of true high speed internet access from a high speed train,
  • The World's first demonstration of bi-directional Ku-band satellite communication to and from a train.

After extensive development and testing to railway industry safety standards, proper trials on a Thalys train operating on the line between Brussels and Paris started on 19th April with a major press trip organised by Thalys for rail journalists on the Wi-Fi train that day. ESA and ESA PR were also in attendance, and the press trip was a great success.


This was followed by an 8-month pilot trial, initially providing free of charge access for all users and then subsequently chargeable access at two different cost levels. A dedicated portal and multi-functional website was developed in four languages for our trial participants:

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In parallel (outside the scope of this project) additional tests have been conducted with other operators demonstrating the high performance of 21Nets system throughout Europe, some of which are shown below:

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