Providing wireless connectivity to users on trains is a challenge for both the mobile and rail industries and something that the general public is growing ever impatient to see improved.
But delivering blanket broadband speeds to trains is a significant technical challenge. I recently had the pleasure of chairing the inaugural 'The Gigabit Train' seminar, held at techUK which aimed to address the technical and commercial challenges of providing wireless connectivity to trains by 2020.
The event, triggered by DfT's recent work in improving mobile communications to UK rail passengers, predominantly focused on the connectivity for UK rail passengers, but there was a continuous theme throughout the event to ensure and satisfy the operational, commercial and safety requirements for train operating companies to make the business case attractive.
During the seminar, a number of issues were raised relating to the technical and commercial aspects of wireless provision to trains. In particular the overarching requirement from government, which is to ensure passengers on trains can make voice calls and access data on mobile devices with an experience similar to that found in areas of good coverage in urban areas, irrespective of the passengers’ choice of service provider.
Gavin James of the Department for Transport (DfT) gave the opening keynote highlighting work in researching passengers' willingness to pay for connectivity and what the value of connectivity brings to passengers. But while the government wants 90% of journeys to have access to Wi-Fi by 2018 (given the updates to franchise obligations), Gavin confirmed that only 62% of British rail routes currently have mobile coverage today, limiting on-board connectivity in many locations. The government would also like passengers to be able to make calls on trains and believe voice over Wi-Fi will be a capable enough solution to start, with VoLTE coming along sometime after.
Solving the commercial issues will be imperative and the government does not expect a single solution for the railway industry. However they may support adjustments to the franchise obligations if that helps to improve the business case.
Consensus from the groups involved
The seminar also included technical presentations from Nomad Digital, Ericsson, Hispasat and Fluidmesh. All but Hispasat, a satellite solution provider, were wireless solution vendors for rail, who expect to see different solutions including increased use of cloud for supporting on-board infrastructure and applications.
According to some of the panel, on-board connectivity should be about delivering services rather than specific technologies serving specific applications — and solutions must not just connect passengers, but also provide TOCs with useful operational data.
The consensus was that the current terrestrial architecture, aggregating capacity from available cellular networks, can deliver a viable on-board Wi-Fi solution, but is wholly dependent on MNO coverage to the rail routes.
The good news is that satellite technology is achieving bit rates of up to 400 Mbps and getting better. Bespoke radome antennas have been developed with enhanced electric capability to minimise the dependence on mechanical characteristics. However, the present antenna design is 40 cm high, and rail requirements in the UK have a maximum of 10 cm for the roof-mounted antennas to be able to clear low bridges and tunnels. Hispasat, expects that modified rooftop antennas to meet UK rail requirements will be developed in the next few years.
One panellist explained how pilot trials for broadband connectivity have been conducted using GSM-R masts to demonstrate the successful delivery of capacity, but the limiting factor is the backhaul, which mainly uses cellular (in case of Wi-Fi). MNOs therefore must work with the rail industry to improve the backhaul situation (connection from trackside to train). Another option to explore is onboard repeaters.
The commercial discussions were the most challenging and monetising free Wi-Fi is notoriously difficult. Suggestions for monetising connectivity to trains included making cost savings, selling products/services, and introducing new services. However, it should not stop there and the industry needs to continually think about what (e.g. ‘killer apps’) will help improve the business case. But for a full business case, the best commercial and technical solution must take into account the franchise period, as well as installation and maintenance costs and potential upgrades.
Overall the seminar provided plenty of industry engagement and discussion about the challenges and some of the solutions for the gigabit train. The issues were certainly not resolved but we picked up some high-priority topics such as how train companies must consider more than just the passengers i.e. commercial, operational and safety to make the business case stack up. The need for cross industry participation in mobile connectivity is not new, but aligning motivations and business requirements in a UK wide context to achieve a uniform solution is still highly challenging. But there are examples of successful approaches taken in global markets which the UK could learn from.
What we did learn was that supplying free standalone Wi-Fi will not deliver value for train operating companies, so therefore franchises should offer flexibility throughout the franchise period to allay some of the risks.
Another conclusion was that the focus on “how to provide free Wi-Fi on trains” is not the right question. It should rather be how to provide connectivity to trains for passenger and operational use, independent of business case (e.g. does not have to be free) and technology (e.g. does not have to be Wi-Fi).
The rail industry should take the leadership to own the business case for improved communications, while mobile operators should provide support at an important touch point in the delivery architecture — the backhaul.
The Gigabit Train challenge is to address all needs of users but in a way that makes commercial sense to both train operating companies within the bounds of their franchise agreements, and wireless providers within the constraints of their commercial models. It is clear things will need to change going forward if we are to make the gigabit train a reality.