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JR to launch free Wi-Fi on bullet trains from May

A bullet train on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line, on which free Wi-Fi will gradually be available from May 2018, is seen in this file photo taken on Jan. 17, 2011. (Mainichi)

Japan Railways (JR) group firms are steaming ahead with the introduction of free Wi-Fi on their Shinkansen bullet trains, in order to meet foreign visitors' demands ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

    The firms are poised to improve their range of free services such as Wi-Fi in an attempt to catch up with other types of transportation, and because many foreign visitors make use of Shinkansen lines when in Japan.

    In May, East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) will launch a free Wi-Fi service on its Tohoku, Hokuriku and Akita Shinkansen lines, slightly earlier than its original target of summer 2018.

    The company will spend about 3.6 billion yen (about $34 million) renovating train carriages, and aims to make free Wi-Fi available on all trains on these three lines by May 2019. Moreover, JR East aims to provide the same service on all Yamagata Shinkansen Line trains during fiscal 2019, and on all Joetsu Shinkansen Line trains by fiscal 2020.

    Similarly, Central Japan Railway Co. is planning to introduce free Wi-Fi on Tokaido Shinkansen Line trains in summer 2018, and West Japan Railway Co., Kyushu Railway Co. and Hokkaido Railway Co. intend to implement the same service from fiscal 2018. Furthermore, there are also plans to introduce free Wi-Fi on express trains on conventional lines that have a high number of foreign visitors.

    One of the key factors behind JR's move to introduce free Wi-Fi has been a sense of crisis that it has not been responding adequately to the needs of foreign visitors to Japan.

    In urban areas, firms such as Toei Subway operated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Tokyo Metro Co. have already started providing free Wi-Fi inside trains on some of their lines. The former intends to deliver free Wi-Fi on all of its trains by spring 2020, and the latter by summer 2020.

    Meanwhile, Toei Bus has already begun providing free Wi-Fi in all of its vehicles, and airport limousine bus companies and highway bus firms are doing the same one by one. Airlines companies are also getting involved -- with Japan Airlines Co. kicking off a free Wi-Fi service on its domestic planes in June 2017, and All Nippon Airways set to do the same in April 2018.

    Regarding free Wi-Fi inside major train stations, the JR firms have delivered in this area, but they have fallen behind in terms of providing the service inside train cars.

    In a survey conducted among visitors to Japan by the Japan Tourism Agency between summer and autumn 2016, the most common response to the question, "Where did you want to use Wi-Fi but couldn't?" was, "Inside train cars."

    The government has set a target of increasing the number of visitors to Japan to 40 million by 2020. In order to help achieve this goal, JR East says, "We want to help make foreign visitors' travel experience more comfortable."

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