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Canadian travellers may soon get Wi-Fi on planes

April 14, 2010 - Like many normally well-connected Canadians, Raylene Lang-Dion
has experienced the frustration of being unable to link to the Internet while travelling.


April 14, 2010
By The Canadian Press

As the former head of a Equal Voice, a non-profit group dedicated to helping more women enter politics, Lang-Dion used to frequently board a Via Rail train near her home in Ottawa to attend weekend meetings in Toronto.

She would fire up her laptop, hoping to get some work done on the four-hour ride, and try to connect to Via's advertised wireless network. It rarely worked for more than a few minutes at a time, she said.

"It was on-and-off. There were frequent disconnections,'' she said. "It really was four hours of time that I felt was a great loss. It would be nice to have a service where I'm not constantly rebooting my connection.''

In a way, Lang-Dion was fortunate Wi-Fi was available at all. Via Rail's Internet service, which is only offered in the Quebec City-Windsor, Ont., corridor, is one of the few currently available to Canadian travellers on the go.

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But if all goes according to plan, that is about to change dramatically.

Air Canada is planning to offer onboard Internet service in the very near future. The airline ran a pilot project onboard two Airbuses flying to California over the winter. The service was only available over U.S. airspace because there is no air-to-ground
Internet infrastructure in Canada.

But the airline is awaiting the outcome of negotiations between U.S.-based telecom Aircell and Ottawa-based Skysurf Canada Communications Inc., which paid $2.1 million last year for a slice of the wireless spectrum, to put a domestic system in place.

"Once the decision on the infrastructure is taken, it will not take all that long to set up in Canada as you don't need a large number of towers — fewer than 20 to cover the country,'' Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick wrote in an email.

For people who travel a little closer to the ground, Greyhound recently started offering Wi-Fi on a handful of bus routes in the northeastern U.S., including some runs to Montreal and Toronto. The company has ordered 70 new coaches with Wi-Fi capability and plans to expand its Internet service to other regions.

"Also, what we'll be doing is refurbishing some of our current coaches and implementing our amenities, such as free Wi-Fi, in those,'' spokesman Tim Stokes said.

Via Rail has been working on upgrades to its Wi-Fi system, which spokesperson Catherine Kaloutsky admits has faced reliability issues.

"We started to see glitches . . . in being able to provide our customers with the speed that they were looking for and the stability. So, the service would be there, (but) it wouldn't be there for their entire trip,'' she said.

Like Air Canada and Greyhound, Via is facing growing expectations from passengers who do not want to be off-line while in transit.

"This is something that is key to our customers. They want to be able to have access to this,'' Kaloutsky said.

The train company has since changed Internet service providers and has upgraded its cellular modems. It is hoping to have a new advanced aggregation system in place by the summer of 2011, which can combine the bandwidth of several providers to provide a larger, more-reliable pipe.

The system will also limit the bandwidth allotted to individual users, Kaloutsky said, to ensure that people who watch streaming video are not biting into the bandwidth of others.

The new technology will undergo pilot tests this summer but, again, will only be available in the Quebec-Windsor corridor. For those riding the rails through the Maritimes, northern Ontario and Western Canada, onboard Internet service is still at least a few years away.

"We're a big country, and the . . . hurdle is really the challenge of geography,'' Kaloutsky said.

Because much of Via's route in the West is far from cell towers, a satellite system would have to be set up. In the meantime, Via has established Wi-Fi service in more of its stations. So, even on the long trip across northern Ontario and the Prairies, passengers can connect at least once a day, during stops in cities such as Winnipeg
or Edmonton.

A reliable, coast-to-coast Wi-Fi system may be a tall order, but it can't come soon enough for travellers like Raylene Lang-Dion.

"It's something you depend on in this day and age,'' she said.