A couple of weeks back I wrote about how utterly b0rked East Coast’s on-train wifi is. With nothing better to do I wrote a script to measure how bad it is, then blogged about the results. I invited East Coast to comment.
Their press officer Damian Greenfield ignored my email. You can try to reach him on Damian.Greenfield@eastcoast.co.uk if you want the official line for articles of your own.
I sent East Coast a recorded delivery letter so it couldn’t later deny awareness of the problem. That won me a response from a chap in the customer service team. The level of technical detail he supplied was great – as a nerd I’d always wondered how it works.
The system piggybacks on mobile phone networks, connecting through whichever operator gives the strongest signal at the train’s present location. It’s very outdated and hasn’t enough capacity for the number of electronic devices people now travel with. Hundreds of people on every train have to fight over the bandwidth a single iPhone normally gets.
So East Coast are reselling the mobile data you’d get from EE, 3 or Virgin. But are EE, 3 and Virgin charging you £4.95 an hour for data on your phone? The markup here is tremendous and East Coast must be making a tidy profit.
I’ll reproduce the full response here in case anyone else is curious about how the service works.
Dear Mr Hewson
I am writing in regards to your email that was passed to us here at Customer Relations on 11 September 2013. This has been passed to us so that we can log your complaint and enables us to keep a record of any correspondence that passes between yourself and East Coast.
I would like to apologise for the trouble that you had with the WiFi on your recent journey with us. Our current WiFi solution was put in place in the summer of June 2010, and delivered a significant improvement in performance and reliability compared to the previous hardware. Since that time, and particularly in recent months, we have seen a deterioration in performance, as you yourself have experienced. This has been caused by a number of factors, but the most critical of these are:
• The rapid growth of mobile devices and their use in a WiFi environment, Smartphone amd Tablet devices have all seen significant growth over the last year, and there is no doubt this has placed a strain on the system.
• Our system does rely on the availability of mobile networks. Each train is equipped with four SIM cards, one for each major network, and the system will automatically roam between networks, selecting the strongest signal available at any given location. In the same way as additional devices have imposed a strain on our train hardware it would appear that mobile networks have suffered due to congestion, and this will undoubtedly have an impact on our service.
• The hardware we have installed within our trains is now over two years old, and in some cases older. Whilst this is well within expected useful life, it is also true to say that the operating environment on board a high speed train is a harsh one, and this has led to some hardware failures, some of which are less visible to us, since they may only affect a part of the train.
We know that the availability of a good quality and value for money service is of critical importance to our customers and we have therefore put in place a service improvement plan, including both short term and longer term measures to improve the service. This includes the following:
• A set of short term actions, including a new more streamlined logon process, priority identification and replacement of failed hardware components, and improved content filtering to prevent the use of streaming and other ‘bandwidth hungry’ activities which will degrade the service for other customers.
• Deployment of a more advanced modem across our fleet. Currently this equipment is only fitted to one third of our fleet, and although it will not of itself improve the capacity or speed of the service, it does feature the ability to undertake remote condition monitoring in a much more sophisticated fashion, therefore allowing the early identification and rectification of system problems.
• The fitment of 4G antennas to our train fleet, in preparation for the rollout of 4G across the country over the next 12-18 months. This will provide a significant improvement in WiFi capacity within our trains, and as currently the system will ‘roam’ between 4G, 3G, and GPRS depending on the strongest signal available.
In the meantime I would like to assure you we are continuing to work closely with our WiFi supplier to identify whatever measures we can take to further improve the service. As you can see from the above we have a lot of work to do, but we are working very hard to resolve the issues which have caused you so much frustration.
On this occasion, as a gesture of goodwill, I would like to offer you a £10.00 voucher as a gesture of goodwill. This can be sent to you by as a National Rail Travel Voucher which can be used with any train operating company but cannot be used online. Alternatively, I can have this credited to an East Coast online account. Please get back to me to let me know if you are happy to accept this offer and how you would like to receive it.
The technical details are interesting but what’s most important is the admission that EC has known known of the problem for some time. In fact I’m writing this from an East Coast train and the generous 15 minutes of free wifi confirms it’s just as bad as a fortnight ago.
It would be interesting to see how long they’ve known performance was unacceptable but went on charging people – time for a FOIA request?
I asked if East Coast was going to give refunds to the affected customers but the question was loudly ignored. The login page collects contact details for all users – so why not get in touch and automatically reimburse them?
Following on from their reply another interesting problem is raised. Given East Coast is aware of the issues plaguing its internet product, why is it still trying to charge passengers £4.95 an hour? There are laws against charging for a product when you know it doesn’t work as advertised.
Having admitted it’s largely broken East Coast should immediately stop using internet access to extract more money from long-suffering passengers. Anything else will serve only to worsen its reputation for high prices and shoddy service.