We’ve all gotten quite used to high-speed internet, whether we’re at home watching Netflix or TikTok, at work…watching Netflix or TikTok, or on the move trying (and often failing) to watch Netflix or TikTok. And most of us know that when we’re at home or in the office using the internet, we’re probably using some sort of WiFi access point or hot spot, while when we’re mobile we’re probably going to be using our cellphones providing 4G/5G wireless internet access via your carrier. This usually works fine, and we usually don’t mind the performance hits we’ve grown accustomed to (videos freezing or stuttering, failed downloads, etc.) while appreciating the incredible convenience of accessing the internet through your smartphone.
Commuters and vacationers alike are coming to expect higher and more consistent bandwidths along with a truly stable internet connection that even 5G cellular service simply can’t provide. With all the well-deserved hype around the future potential of much-improved 5G performance relative to 4G, cellular phone service simply can’t provide the consistent bandwidth and connection reliability of the humble, old WiFi router with a backend that relies on a high-bandwidth, high-reliability wired connection.
This means that the mass transportation industry has had to scramble to ensure that their particular mode of transportation provides quality WiFi internet for their passengers. But, the final result is a win-win situation – with passengers very happy with their WiFi, and the business gets to attract new customers, improve customer satisfaction and make money advertising via their WiFi network.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles?
More to the point – planes, trains, buses, subways, and cruise ships. These are some of the major modes of mass transportation that are trying very hard to provide high-quality WiFi service to their many passengers. But there are tough challenges with providing WiFi to passengers on the go. Without the luxury of a permanent wired connection, the industry is forced to rely primarily on over-the-air (e.g. wireless) transport to provide the backbone that connects their passengers to the internet.
Let’s think about the major forms of mass transportation and how they provide WiFi internet access. Then we’ll see what they all have in common and how they can provide better connectivity for their passengers regardless of if they are travelling via air, land, or sea.
Buses need an on-vehicle WiFi access point that provides internet access to their passengers. That WiFi access point would communicate with the internet via LTE/4G/5G cellular towers. The problem here is that as the bus travels around town, the cellular phone signal fluctuates greatly and performance issues are routine. Handoff between the cell towers occurs seamlessly in some cases (just like when you’re driving in your car) but the constantly fluctuating signals, due to everything from weather conditions, building locations, and overall network usage makes providing stable, high-bandwidth and high-reliability internet that relies on a single connection for its backhaul is very challenging.
Trains and Subways
Trains also rely primarily on cellular phone towers to provide internet access but trains have two additional challenges relative to buses. Firstly, they travel much faster and farther than buses, often travelling through multiple cities or metropolitan zones, sometimes even countries. This means they now have to coordinate using different cellular providers as they pass through coverage areas.
Secondly, the environmental conditions on trains are probably the harshest and most severe in the entire mass transportation system. We’re all certainly aware of how much trains rock and roll just when we’re sitting in our seats. Sometimes it’s a fairly pleasant soothing rocking motion that’s perfect for a quick nap. But you’re virtually guaranteed to be rudely roused from your slumber by sudden and relatively severe bumps or jolts. And more to the point, if you’ve ever walked from one train car to the next, perhaps to grab a snack or use the restroom, you’ve probably noticed that the train’s motion is actually quite violent as it travels, with near-constant bouncing and jerking to the point where it can be difficult to even walk straight without being tossed from side to side.
This means that most consumer and commercial/enterprise solutions (wireless modem/router/WiFi access point) will not be able to survive the harsh environmental conditions onboard trains. Any solution must be ruggedized to meet the challenging shock, vibration, and temperature profiles inherent in rail transport.
Several major cities worldwide provide WiFi for their subway passengers, including New York, London, Toronto, Moscow, Singapore, and Tokyo, to name a few. Subways have the same environmental requirements as above-ground rail, but can no longer rely on cell towers to provide the internet backbone since the train is underground during most of its journey. This necessitates fairly complex and expensive solutions unique to subways.
To provide this service, the subway trains must rely on a dedicated Trackside Network, or TSN, that delivers the internet signal to tunnels and trains. The underground trains would also have a wireless modem/router/WiFi access point that communicates with these subterranean transmitters.
Airplanes primarily rely on two methods for providing internet WiFi to their flying passengers. The first method involves using specially designed cell towers that direct their energy upwards into the sky, rather than horizontally to an adjacent tower. The airplane must be fitted with special antennas pointed downwards which provides the backbone between their passengers and the internet. The second method uses satellite internet and specially designed antennas that are aimed upwards and need to be dynamically steered to maintain line-of-sight contact with the particular satellite they are using. The satellite may be high-altitude GEO or can even utilize the more modern low-earth orbit satellites, such as the Starlink Constellation provided by SpaceX. In both cases, the airplane antenna must be dynamically steered so it remains pointing at the appropriate satellite at all times. A wireless WiFi modem/router on the plane would then provide for WiFi access for the passengers.
What about cruise ships? How do cruise ships provide WiFi internet to their seafaring passengers? The answer is…poorly. All the major cruise lines offer “high-speed internet” but prepare yourself for extremely slow service – when you can get it at all – and frequent blackouts where there is simply no coverage. If that’s a major problem, then maybe you shouldn’t have taken the cruise!
The challenges of providing high-speed internet while sailing the ocean blue can be profound. Similar to airplanes, cruise ships must rely on satellite internet, and some of the major cruise lines also leverage high-power cell towers located on coast lines that can be used when the ships are relatively close to land. Typically, internet access aboard cruise lines will be much slower than anything you’re used to (often clocking in at just a few Mbps) and coverage will be completely unavailable, or very spotty, as weather conditions such as storms, and scarcity of satellite coverage over sizeable swaths of the world’s oceans will wreak havoc on your internet connectivity.
Tying it all Together
One of the things we’ve noticed when looking at providing WiFi internet access for mass transportation is that they all have to deal with the fact that wired access (which still provides the highest speeds and reliability via cable and fiber) is simply not available. This means that they all have to rely on time-varying signals that present wide variations as far as signal strength, bandwidth, and reliability. Wireless communications in general suffer various sorts of degradation due to weather conditions and local topography (mountains, buildings, etc.) adversely affecting signal transmission, as well as maintaining line-of-sight to the required satellite or cell tower.
Broadband Bonding to the Rescue
Using a single Broadband Bonding box, it is possible to aggregate multiple disparate WAN connections into a single “super pipe”. The Broadband Bonder can then monitor the health of each WAN link and make packet-by-packet steering or routing decisions over the most appropriate connection, or group of connections (a “virtual” connection or interface). We refer to this kind of intelligent WAN aggregation as Broadband Bonding.
Using broadband bonding it is possible to aggregate even the most disparate of WAN connections independent of vendor, which means you can terminate all your WAN links into a single box and let that box automatically optimize the internet connectivity by using real-time metrics of all your links. Typically, in a mobile application, the available WAN links would include multiple cellular SIM cards and ethernet-ready satellite feeds, along with any wired connections that might be available from time to time. The Broadband Bonding appliance can then mix and match any connections or groups of connections to ensure the connection is fully optimized under all conditions. If the satellite signal drops out, and there is cellular data available, the traffic will seamlessly failover to the best WAN link. Of course, if you are relying on a single satellite feed and nothing else for your internet, you will be out of luck. But for buses and trains, you would always have available several cellular providers and the Broadband Bonder would seamlessly tailor your internet traffic to only flow over the healthiest lines as you travel.
So, while providing WiFi internet to mobile passengers is a very challenging task, the smart approach is to combine the time-varying, disparate WAN connections intelligently using a single broadband bonding router to ensure you have the steadiest, most reliable, and highest-bandwidth internet connection at all times.
Rob Stone, Mushroom Networks, Inc.
Mushroom Networks is the provider of Broadband Bonding appliances that put your networks on auto-pilot. Application flows are intelligently routed around network problems such as latency, jitter and packet loss. Network problems are solved even before you can notice.
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