WORLDBEAT - the Connected Home -- While on the Move

On Europe's roomy, comfortable long-distance trains, I feel so at home that the low, rhythmic rumbling along the track often makes me want to fall asleep.

If I can stay awake, though, I love journeys on these trains for the sensation of freedom they give. Unlike cars or planes, where I'm buckled into a cramped seat, on a train there's room to move around, to walk about, to go sit in the bar. Even to work without the screen of my laptop bashing into the back of the seat in front.

Trains are convenient in other ways too: If I leave home in Paris to visit our office in central London, just 30 minutes separate my seat at the breakfast table from my seat on the train -- a 20-minute bicycle ride to the station, and 10 minutes to stroll through passport control and down to the platform. After that, I can do what I please with the next three hours: work, read ... or snooze. On arrival, it takes just a few minutes to walk to the office -- but I could reach most of central London within 30 minutes on the Tube.

As Jean-Michel Dancoisne, CEO of international train operator Thalys, puts it, "When you take the train, your time is your own."

On the plane, it's a different story.

To make that same journey from home in Paris to our London office by air takes about the same time, door to door: four hours. But the time is broken into unusable little chunks: a 10-minute walk to the Métro, 50 minutes on three trains to reach the airport, half an hour waiting in lines at check-in, passport control, security and so on. Even on the 45-minute flight, by the time the seat belt signs go out and I'm allowed to boot up my laptop, I can work for less than half an hour before it's time to shut it down again. The longest uninterrupted stage of the journey is an hour spent on a crowded Tube from Heathrow into the center of London -- but that's no environment in which to whip out a laptop and concentrate.

Little wonder, then, that I feel more at home on trains than on planes: I have space, calm and coffee. The only thing missing is my broadband Internet connection.

Well, not any longer, at least on journeys via Brussels to Amsterdam or the German city of Cologne. On Wednesday, Thalys launched a Wi-Fi Internet access service, ThalysNet, on board the high-speed trains it operates between Paris and those three cities.

Sure, this has been tried on planes before, but it never really took off, leading Boeing to close down its service. Thalys is giving away its service to first-class passengers, and charging those in second class ¬6.50 (US$10) an hour, about the same price as Wi-Fi hotspots in Paris cafés.

The logistics of delivering Internet access to a train speeding along at 300 kilometers per hour are somewhat different compared to wiring up a bar or hotel foyer.

ThalysNet connects via the satellite Hispasat, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. The satellite dish, protected by a plastic dome on the train's roof, swivels back and forth to follow the satellite as the railway track twists and turns. In some tunnels, and on the outskirts of cities where buildings block the line of sight to the satellite, the system connects instead to local 3G (third-generation) mobile networks. Finally, in stations, when the train is stopped, it relays the signal of Wi-Fi hotspots on the station platform. The handover from one technology to another is automatic.

This impressively complex combination of three technologies should allow passengers to share an Internet connection with an apparent bandwidth of up to 4M bits per second, using it for surfing, sending e-mail, even making voice-over-IP calls, according to the consortium of companies operating the service for Thalys.

I say "should" because when I tried the service this week on its inaugural voyage, accompanied by many of the people who had designed and built it, I was unable even to connect to the on-board portal to enter my password.

I was happy to stretch out and drink another cup of coffee as my laptop scanned the airwaves for the Wi-Fi hotspot, but the chief engineer for the consortium began to look discomfited. Even though one or two travelers in our carriage had managed to connect to their Gmail accounts, something was clearly amiss.

Technicians scuttled in and out of our carriage, and the chief engineer huddled in conference with colleagues, listening distractedly on his mobile phone to the Network Operations Center's assurances that yes, the satellite connection was working just fine.

The problem, it turned out, was with one of the less-expensive components locked away in the little cupboard just behind us: the DHCP server. For some reason, it had stopped dishing out IP addresses a few minutes after departure, so only a lucky few were surfing the 'Net as we whizzed across the Belgian countryside.

When I get that problem with my DSL router, I just unplug it and plug it back in: maybe the train isn't quite like home after all.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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