VIA Rail plans a pay-per-use mobile Wi-Fi trial by the end of this month, the first step in offering commercial service to business travelers on its VIA 1 class rail cars. But before VIA can launch a commercial offer, it will have to issue a request for proposal (RFP), something it plans to do before the end of the first quarter (RoW Update, Feb. 16/04), according to a company representative. The rail operator will post the RFP on MERX, Canada’s official public sector tendering service. The company will also post it on its web site under the section "Doing Business with VIA" and will send it directly to companies it thinks would be interested in responding to the tender. VIA has two ongoing trials: one with Bell Canada on the Toronto-Montreal route using equipment from PointShot Wireless, and the other with Telus Mobility and Spotnik Mobile using gear from Cisco Systems Inc. running from Quebec City to Montreal. In an interview with Report on Wireless, VIA Rail’s product manager corridor services (Quebec and Ontario) Guy Faulkner says there are a number of things the company has to finalize before it can issue the RFP. It needs to make sure other onboard systems don’t encounter interference, and the Wi-Fi system has to offer support for other internal applications. "We also want to make sure that once the infrastructure is in there it allows you to do things like, e-ticketing," says Faulker. "The airlines right now say they are ticketless, but in fact, what they are doing is they have eliminated the ticket but they still kept the boarding pass. If we had our way and if we can find the revenue source to do this we’d like to go completely ticketless: get on board and we’ll read the bar code with a bar code reader and off you go. "That’s … another way to justify this and get this in place, is by not only looking at the Wi-Fi solution in terms of Internet access, but what that infrastructure can also provide in terms of additional sources of revenue and additional services to our customers." Faulkner explains that using the Wi-Fi system for other operational and customer-oriented services will be an integral component of the RFP. "Those systems are going to have to be compatible with other systems that we would like to integrate over several years. We’re going to be very careful setting up the technical component of that RFP to make sure, for one, our trains don’t look like a CIA spy boat with 12,000 antennas on it, but also to save costs later on and to provide infrastructure to build in all these additional services." Faulkner envisions a few business models that the eventual RFP winner could implement. The service provider could charge by the hour or a flat fee for the trip. Service could also be attached to an existing ISP account. But, he adds, that will be up to the company or group of companies that are selected to deploy the system. The value proposition for traveling professionals is compelling, says Faulkner. "You can imagine if you’re a lawyer and you bill at $750/hour and you’re traveling four hours, you’re not losing any time. You’re still bringing in money for your company while you’re on the train. I don’t think you’d mind paying $7, $8, $10 perhaps per hour." VIA has conducted market research confirming that people are willing to pay for the service while on the train. Initial findings reveal that people are willing to pay between $4 and $6 per hour. Faulkner will provide greater details of VIA’s market research at the Wi-Fi Power conference in Toronto, taking place March 1-3. Faulkner tells RoW that VIA thinks $6 per hour is too expensive and that it may be difficult to convince passengers to pay. "People will always tell you ‘yes I’m willing to pay up front for it’ until you tell them, well, put your hand in your pocket and pay. The plan is at the end of February to actually do a pay-per-use trial, to go out and test the model. Say to people ‘it’s here, but now you have to pay, this is what you’ll have to pay’ to see what the takeup rate is." Last year, a Decima Research Inc. report on attitudes toward and usage of Wi-Fi demonstrated there is an appetite for Wi-Fi among the consumer and business market segments (RoW, Dec. 3/03). While the research focused primarily on fixed Wi-Fi in locations such as coffee shops and airport lounges, a single question on mobile Wi-Fi was asked. Data indicate that about 8% of those with a laptop, PDA, a cell phone and Internet access, or 4% of all Canadians, expressed interest in using mobile Wi-Fi.