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Free wi-fi on trains still sluggish or not yet delivered by TOCs

Train companies will only have to provide basic wi-fi for customers despite the government’s pledge to introduce free internet connections on trains to enable commuters to “keep up with work”.

In February of last year the DfT announced £50m of funding for several operators – Southeastern, Chiltern, TSGN and Arriva Trains Wales – to aid the roll-out of free wi-fi on their lines by 2017. It also said that all TOCs bidding on future franchises or direct award would have to include free wi-fi as part of their pitches.

Matt Hancock MP, the digital policy minister, revealed in a parliamentary debate on the planned Digital Economy Bill earlier in November that the minimum speed required on bids was only 1 megabit per second (Mbps) per passenger, which would only allow for “basic web browsing, basic email and social media activity”.

Hancock said that this minimum requirement would be increased by 25% a year and franchises are already exceeding it with stronger bids, with Abellio pledging that it will provide up to 100Mbps per passenger by 2019 on the East Anglia franchise, rising to 500Mbps by 2021. However, there is still concern that train operators will be slow to deliver upon their promise.

David Sidebottom, the passenger director at the watchdog Transport Focus, said: “Wi-fi speed and connectivity can be patchy. Some operators charge for connections while on-board, while several do not offer any wi-fi at all.

“We know that passengers now expect reliable, free access to wi-fi on trains – it was in their top 10 priorities for improvement – so we urge future franchises to ensure they have the capability to deliver this.”

Louise Haigh MP, Labour’s digital economy spokeswoman, has urged the government to commit to faster rail broadband. She noted that a third of major rail franchises still do not provide free wi-fi and the current minimum spec of 1Mbps makes even opening an email with an attachment very slow.

As a result she is considering proposing an amendment to the Digital Economy Bill, which will be discussed again in the House of Commons next week.

“Providing good, free wi-fi on public transport is not just a better service for passengers but improves productivity and supports business as well,” Haigh said.

“Given the huge profits made by the private train companies, the government should be pushing them to go further, faster.”

Haigh would also like to see bus operators provide free wi-fi and is therefore currently preparing an amendment to the Bus Services Bill too. “What goes for trains should go for the rest of our public transport network too,” she said.

A DfT spokesman added that the government forecasts that more than 90% of passengers will have access to wi-fi by the end of 2018, rising to almost 100% by 2020. Hancock previously mentioned in the debate that the obligation to provide free wi-fi has now been secured on 10 of the 15 franchises in England and Wales.

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John Grant   22/11/2016 at 12:56

"Only" 1Mb/s per passenger? A typical 4-coach unit has about 300 seats, so that's 300Mb/s. If the standing passengers are included, it must be over a gigabit for an 8-coach train. With current technology it has to come over the air; how much spectrum would that need in the area round Clapham Junction?

Mel W   22/11/2016 at 13:09

exactly, the promises if true are highly un likely to come good, no matter how good the train back bone, you are limited by user numbers, connectivity at train speeds up to 100 mph or more and the coverage of whatever sim cards you have fitted, making it free to all has just compounded the problem further, I would think time restrictions or banning access to video streaming are virtually guaranteed.

Noam Bleicher   23/11/2016 at 14:43

Poor on-train wifi is not the fault of the TOCs but the useless mobile phone providers who simply will not provide the bandwidth close to railway lines. Try using your phone on 4G and you will see. Often the only decent signal is when you are close to a motorway.

Andrew Gwilt   23/11/2016 at 23:08

Abellio are spending what they want to improve Passenger Satifaction with wifi being fitted on the Greater Anglia trains and new trains that are to be built will also feature wifi.

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