Free wi-fi on National Express - a godsend or spectacularly crap?

13 November 2008

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?

11 comments

  • ayeright
    You're missing the point here - SOME internet is better than NO internet. Plus there's no explicit additional charge. I've never had any problems anyway, maybe the author should check his laptop?
  • Paul S.
    If National Express are using it as a point of difference over airlines to attract custom, I’d say they’re in the wrong to promise continuous internet connection, when the reality is the service doesn’t support it. SOME internet is fine as long as that’s what you tell customers they’re getting - to claim otherwise is misleading. This Apple MacBook seems to have a lot of love for wi-fi wherever it is, and at times on the train journey was quite happily connecting through a mobile modem when National Express couldn’t provide any service at all.
  • Andrew
    I know some of the guys I work with regularly get the train from Newcastle down to London, and paid for the Wifi service. Even when it was paid for though, it was often slow or unreliable. So much so, that they invested in company 3G modems to make sure of connectivity while on the move. But then, free wifi is free wifi after all, so we can't have that many grounds to complain. Although I do agree that if they're including the "Free Wifi" tagline in advertising then they should make sure their service is up to scratch!
  • Jeezey
    "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. " Simply not true; all data card accces is a shared service; unless you're carrying your own mast on the train with you?
  • Paul Nikkel EDITOR
    Jeezey almost any internet connection is going to be "shared" in the sense of its contention ratio. The difference between having 100 people using the internet through your broadband connection or just you applies in the same way to having a train full of people using a data card connection or just you on your own data card...
  • In-flight B.
    [...] through Gogo’s FAQ, it seems they’re already expecting to run into problems similar to those experienced by National Express‘ wi-fi service; significant variations in service availability brought about by demand. [...]
  • Why B.
    [...] never catch me banging on about how utterly useless everything in the modern world is. Apart from the free wi-fi on National Express’ East Coast mainline. I know I may have mentioned it before, and you’re right - it’s free! Why the hell am I [...]
  • Harris
    Gave up trying to load this article using the WiFi. Using my HTC instead. All I wanted was basic access. Maybe they could block some rich content sites like YouTube? Anyway, sure its free but so is a kick in the nuts.
  • n d.
    Spectacularly Crap crap crap crap crap crap crap
  • WiFi B.
    [...] the average download speed across the hour was 565Kbps, and the average upload speed was 187Kbps. In November 2008, we conducted a similar test when the franchise was still operated by National Express – [...]
  • Tim
    There are 2 issues I have with this service....firstly it has now changed that only 1st class customers get free WiFi (to improve the service apparently....I guess by removing the poor people) and std class get 15 mins before they need to pay. In my experience, it can take that long to get connected. The other issue I have is that for some reason, my browser (and the BBC website) thinks I'm in Sweden - so I get adverts all over the site and for some reason, I can't connect to SharePoint, Other than that, I agree that free is better than none, but I use Leeds to London regularly, and to be honest, most of the time I'd be happy with no internet, rather than spending 30 minutes trying to send an email. If there's not internet, you don't *think* you can be productive

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