We came back by Shinkansen, which gave us 2.5 hours to play with a lot of gadgets and check out the options for wireless internet connectivity at 270km/h…
(1) Wireless LAN = Not available (Wait until 2009)
In June this year JR Central announced that they would roll out Wireless LAN connectivity on the high speed trains that run between Tokyo and Osaka. Starting 2009, passengers will be able to get a high speed internet connection from one of several hotspots in the train. For the moment, JR is still testing the service.
On this trip, when I looked at the "available networks" on my PC, I could see several hotspots with very good signals. All of the hotspots had names beginning with "N700". So I assume that we were riding on an N700 series train and those are the hotspots that will eventually let me surf at high speeds without any interruptions – even in tunnels. Yesterday, however, all of the hotspots were password protected and I couldn't find any way to connect to them. (Not that I was looking for a way to hack in).
There are a few other trains in Japan that have offered wireless hotspots since 2005. I think it will be more meaningful when this service launches on the long-distance, high speed Shinkansen trains.
(2) Apple iPhone on Softbank's 3G network = Pretty good (a couple of dead spots)
My wife's iPhone worked fairly well for large stretches of the journey. She was able to open web sites, access her email and use the GPS function to track our progress.
As you would expect, she couldn't connect at all when the train went into a tunnel. She also noticed a few "dead spots" between Nagoya and Tokyo where the reception dropped. Overall, though, it seemed to work well.
(3) eMobile modem card on eMobile's network (effectively means NTT docomo's 3G network) = Pretty good
eMobile is an MVNO, offering high speed mobile data communications services and voice services. I believe that they are using NTT docomo's 3G network to do this, which means that they have pretty good coverage for almost all of the area that the Shinkansen travels through.
My wife lent me her USB data card from eMobile, which is really simple to set up. I just plugged the device into the USB port of my PC and allowed it to install itself.
I was quite pleased with the speed and reliability of the service. I was able to set up a VPN connection to Forrester's network. That gave me access to email and other employee resources. For some downloads, it was a little slower than I would have liked, but quite adequate really. I could actually get some work done.
Of course, it didn't work in the tunnels…
(4) 3G mobile phone on KDDI's network = Works OK. Rather dull. But when things went wrong this is the device that saved us.
I've been browsing various mobile phone sites with my ordinary Toshiba W52T phone for a couple of years now. It no longer wows me, even though I can use it to access mobile web sites with the EZ Web browser – and watch digital TV broadcasts (for free!) – and the connection seems to be pretty good for most of the trip from Kyoto to Tokyo.
- The browser for viewing regular web sites sucks….
- I don't forward my Forrester emails to this device…
- I find it to be tiresome to type messages using only the 12-key keypad…
But guess what? This is the device that I turned to in an emergency: Our Shinkansen train was delayed for about 20 minutes at Yokohama Station and then it had to wait again at Shinagawa Station because the Shinkansen network was disrupted by severe rain in Shizuoka. The Shinkansen driver announced that he did not know when he would get permission to proceed to Tokyo Station.
We needed to get home quickly and I wanted to check which route to take. Without any hesitation, I pulled out my Toshiba mobile phone and fired up the NAVITIME application. In just a few moments, Navitime identified my location, checked the timetables and told me the best routes home — including train times, cab fares and weather reports for all points on the route. And of course, I was able to buy some pastries on the way home with the stored value SUICA chip which is built into the mobile phone.
I thought it was quite funny that when the going got tough, I turned to my trusty old keitai.
(By the way — What's red and white and moves at 270km/h?
Answer: A Tokaido Shinkansen driver's hinomaru bento).