Viasat technology could transform train and bus travel

Hybrid system, flat antennas, and innovative technology are key to increasing connectivity

Viasat Spark prototype for train and bus travel
Viasat Spark prototype

Trains and buses have long been a reliable transit option for travelers, particularly in Europe and Latin America. And the emerging luxury bus market — with features commonly found in a first-class airplane cabin — is drawing a fast-growing class of travelers who want both comfort and dependability.

At the same time, providing reliable Wi-Fi on these popular modes of transportation is becoming an essential service for today’s travelers.

However, the long-standing challenge for these markets has been three-fold — finding the right technological solution and antennas that can work together to ensure sustained connectivity, at a price point the market will bear.

Unlike planes that typically have a clear line of sight to a satellite, these transit modes have a connectivity challenge given that the vehicles pass through mountain ranges, tunnels and urban areas with large buildings — all of which pose potential connectivity obstacles.

Additionally, trains and buses traveling between cities cross through remote areas with limited connectivity. Cellular companies typically don’t focus on such areas because demand is limited, and infrastructure is expensive.

Viasat understands these challenges. It has begun demonstrating Wi-Fi connectivity on a specially equipped van supplied with a flat panel antenna at its Carlsbad, CA headquarters. And it is already testing the system on buses in Europe as well.

The company’s Global Enterprise and Mobility team, which successfully provides in-flight service to global airlines and a growing number of maritime vessels, has been seeking similar solutions for the land mobile market.

“Historically antennas for this market have been too expensive and too tall,” said Andy Kessler, vice president of Viasat’s Enterprise and Land Mobility business segment. “What we’ve needed to make this work is a relatively low-cost antenna that is essentially flat, an accompanying hybrid cellular/satellite network system, and our satellite bandwidth economics.”

The van showcases a solution to those issues with multiple antennae, including cellular antennas and Viasat’s phased array satellite antenna.

Viasat developed the innovative technology used in phase array antennas out of its Lausanne, Switzerland facility. The antenna steers beams electronically rather than mechanically, so it remains stationary and does not need to rotate to track satellites.. The modular, scalable design means it can be adapted for use on multiple mobile and fixed platforms — from the smallest of jets to the largest of ships — as well as for government land, sea and air communications. 

Paired with a cellular system, the two data transport networks provide the consistent connectivity needed for land mobile markets.

The dual hybrid system with cellular and satellite transport links can now be seen on Viasat’s demo van. Functioning as a mobile laboratory, operators can experience how the service performs, and how their employees and passengers can use it.

“Potential customers can see for themselves how our hybrid connectivity system works,” Kessler said. “They’ll see that it continues to deliver connectivity, even when we’re blocked by overpasses and mountains.

“They’ll see that it can also allow them to monitor how their operators are driving, how to route around problem areas, how to track potential malfunctions and conduct conditions-based maintenance. The connectivity we’re providing can digitally transform a business to help deliver greater operational efficiency.”

We are enthusiastic about the new opportunities in the bus and rail industries and are actively pursuing these markets.