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« Ruckus MetroFlex Focuses on Home Metro Gateway | Main | Belkin, Gefen Switch from Freescale for Ultrawideband »

July 31, 2006

Caltrain Tries WiMax on Train

Nomad Digital has US trial of its technology: The multi-national firm Nomad Digital is best known so far for equipping the Brighton-to-London run on Southern Rail in the UK with fixed pre-WiMax links. I spoke to Nomad's head the other day, and he said they achieve 6 Mbps in each direction on the local network, but backhaul remains problematic due to limited access to rail right of way. This shouldn't be an issue for Caltrain, the train operator that handles the commuter rail from San Francisco down through San Jose, and on (with limited service) to Gilroy. Paralleling 101, there should be plenty of fiber and other options.

Nomad Digital, Intel, and Sensoria Corp., and Redline Communications worked with Caltrain on the successful trial, which provided continuous service along 16 miles of track between Millbrae and Palo Alto at speeds of up to 79 mph. The test included simultaneous laptop use with streaming video, email, large file downloads, and Web browsing.

Nomad's system is a series of fixed WiMax base stations, which technically means they follow 802.16-2004 and use OFDM rather than mobile WiMax, which is 802.16-2005 and uses OFDMA. This technical difference means that certified equipment is available now. Despite the "fixed" part of fixed WiMax, it's more about predictable placement, as opposed to providing a cloud of coverage as mobile WiMax will offer.

Intel's involvement came from Intel Solution Services, which did something that is obscured by the excessive marketing-speke used in this press release. I think they designed the network, but perhaps they installed the hardware, too. Double-plus confusing.

Sensoria's mesh nodes connected and distributed service over Wi-Fi on each train. Redline's certified WiMax gear provided the backhaul. That gear uses Intel's chips, naturally.

Update: A savvy reader noted that there is no such thing as certified WiMax in the U.S. market. None of the certified profiles so far include legal U.S. frequencies. Redline's two certified WiMax products use 3.5 GHz profiles, which is still under review here for how it might be shared. (It's available in certain forms in Europe, for instance.) If Redline used 5.8 GHz, that's fine, but that's not WiMax yet and may never achieve a certified profile.

The Bay Area will soon be ringed with Wi-Fi on trains. ACE (Altamount Commuter Express), traveling from Stockton through Fremont down to San Jose, has had service for years, but is finishing a major upgrade that will dramatically increase speed. Their service is free, underwritten by a sponsor. Capitol Corridor, operating from northeast of Sacramento via Fremont to San Jose, has four firms about to launch test networks in expectation of providing a full-blown network across its 170-odd-mile run.

This has got to be the greatest thing since sliced bread for people living in one of the world's most expensive megalopolises. Sure, I'm opposed to sprawl, but I'm also in favor of home ownership, which has pushed those who want or need to work close to the Bay out fairly far with long, long commutes and traffic delays.

Thus, the idea that people might be able to combine public transportation, wireless networking, and reducing their working day by having a working commute seems like the sort of futuristic world--except with no suction tubes moving us from place to place--that sci-fi writers have predicted for decades. Until they went all dystopic on us.

The California rollouts are not unique. Caltrain's trial is part of an explosion of train-based Internet access. SJ has equipped its 42 trains in Sweden; GNER, which runs on Britain's East Coast, will finish equipping its 41 trains this summer; and VIA Rail in Canada earlier this year started their production rollout of service from Toronto to Qu├ębec City. [Thanks to Cyrus for the link]