Free wi-fi on National Express - a godsend or spectacularly crap?
It's a well known fact that everyone living outside the M25 is a) poor and b) dirty. Still, despite our impoverished, filthy ways we sometimes have cause to visit London, and our choice is simple: train or plane?
The standard concerns when considering a domestic flight into London are the hidden costs, in terms of both time and money, of actually getting to and from airports. Wherever you're travelling from and to, flying doesn't always stack up terms of additional check-in times and transfer costs.
Plus the likes of National Express offer free wi-fi on their East Coast mainline serivice. Mmm. Wi-fi. Nom nom nom. The train operator hasn't been shy in shouting about the service in a recent marketing campaign, wryly criticising the lack of similar facilities on airlines. And such a simple proposition does seems to be a dealbreaker for plenty of passengers; whether for business or pleasure, an online laptop is your bestest friend when travelling on the train.
Except when it's so slow as to be completely useless. And that's if it works at all. Plenty of us have endured the tears of pure frustration as our otherwise reliable browser gives us the finger and refuses to connect to the internet. So why do National Express promise such a whizz-bang service if they can't deliver?
Part of the problem is our perception of what's on offer, although National Express hardly bust a gut to put us right. Using a shiny buzzword like "wi-fi" suggests a high-spec service, whereas it is exactly that - a wireless connection, nothing more, nothing less. The more observant amongst you will notice that National Express is careful never to promote the data speeds possible in any of their literature. In fact the only reference we can find is in their Wi-fi user guide:
The connection to the train is provided through a combination of a satellite and multiple 3G/HSDPA mobile networks. These external links are combined to deliver a constant internet connection even when going through a tunnel.
Due to the nature of the mobile connections the speed will fluctuate depending on your geographic location and the number of users on the service.
Now we freely accept we're not telecommunications engineers, but that doesn't entirely make sense to us. We might expect mobile coverage to be hit-and-miss in the countryside, but how can satellite coverage be as geographically patchy as seems to be? If this system is combining all available sources at any given moment, shouldn't a satellite (which is presumably up in the sky, above us all the time) fill in the gaps to enable continuous coverage where no network coverage is available, and reinforce it when it is?
It's because of the other factor mentioned here, again that National Express fails to mention anywhere except in this user guide - like any wireless network, the service is affected by the number of users. If every laptop was simply logging into email it'd no doubt cope with the strain, but it's not unreasonable for passengers to expect to use media-rich sites featuring graphics, audio and video.
Combining broadband sources may ensure there is always a minimal service available, but factor in the demand (10 laptop users in 10 carriages would mean 100 users on one train) and you suffer the head-banging insanity of having your browser fall over again and again.
Broadband Speed Checker is one of those nifty sites that allows you to check connection speeds, so we did exactly that on the East Coast mainline service yesterday. Performing five tests at random intervals, the top download speed we encountered was healthy 600Kbs; the slowest was 176Kbs. Actually the slowest was zero, since there were plenty of occasions when we couldn't connect to the broadband service. In terms of upload speeds, the fastest was 185 Kbps while the slowest was a roundly pathetic 32kbps - you could manage that sort of speed with a telephone modem a decade ago
So in trying to swing custom away from budget airlines, are National Express deliberately misleading customers? We'd say so. The company repeatedly promises "uninterrupted" coverage, a "constant internet connection", "continuous WiFi connection" and so on, but reality stops short of backing up these claims. At no point does National Express mention connection speeds which isn't misleading, although it's an obvious omission and a fact which determines what you can and can't use the service for. And unless you read the user guide, National Express aren't too keen to point out that the service is available subject to demand, which can mean no service at all.
Finally, there's this from the Wi-fi user guide, which we can only describe as a cheeky fib:
You should always enjoy a faster service than using a PC mobile data card.
While mobile broadband modems and data cards are more susceptible to geography, the key difference is they are dedicated; the connection simply isn't shared with dozens of other people. If you can't use the wi-fi service on a National Express train, that doesn't mean you can't go online.
Bitterwallet did contact National Express to comment on their service and whether customers can expect it to be upgraded anytime soon, but so far we haven't received a reply. Perhaps their internet connection is broken. In the meantime, what do you think? Are we being mislead or should we shut the hell up since it's a freebie?