Achieving continuous mobile coverage across the rail network is going to require cooperation and much negotiation, suggests PHIL SORSKY

Recent significant investments in major engineering projects such as HS2 and Crossrail are evidence of the intense focus under which the UK’s national rail infrastructure currently finds itself.

But it’s not only the physical elements of the network that are under scrutiny.

In February 2015, the UK government announced £50 million in funding for the provision of free Wi-Fi on trains across England and Wales from 2017. June last year saw further consultation looking at ways in which 3G or 4G mobile connectivity could be improved across the country’s rail network.

Mobile devices play a part in everybody’s life nowadays, whether for work or play, and consumers expect their smartphones and tablets to work flawlessly regardless of where they are or what apps, sites and services they’re trying to access. As a result of this demand for connectivity, there has been an unprecedented level of data consumption over mobile networks, and many countries have experienced mobile saturation of more than 100 per cent.

Despite experiencing such high levels of mobile subscriber traffic, however, some areas within these countries suffer severely limited mobile connectivity. One such area is, of course, the national rail network where, even on parts of the country’s most travelled commuter routes, there can sometimes be little or no mobile connectivity whatsoever.

Facing up to the challenge
A typical urban public transport system tends to be comprised of features which make it less than conducive to dependable, consistent mobile connectivity. Mobile operators will often face the challenge of providing coverage through miles of tunnels, sometimes deep underground. Even above ground, and despite there being perfect coverage along the track, there’s still no guarantee that passengers will enjoy full connectivity inside the train itself.

Indeed, the biggest challenge facing operators looking to provide rail passengers with mobile coverage is bringing the available network into the train from the track side. The structure of the trains themselves can significantly impede the extent to which mobile signals are able to penetrate into carriages, particularly the metallised windows often found on high-speed trains. As a result, an outside signal may not be able to reach mobile users inside a train, despite the coverage being perfect alongside the track.

But, while it may be challenging, it needn’t be impossible, as the following European examples demonstrate.

European connections
Mobile operators in Switzerland have worked closely with the country’s national rail provider in recent years to drive investment and establish it as one of the first countries to deploy wireless services on board trains. By way of illustration, rail passengers travelling through the recently opened NEAT Gotthard Base Tunnel will be able to enjoy continuous mobile connectivity for their entire journey even though the tunnel runs deep beneath the Alps for more than 35 miles.

In Italy and Germany, manufacturers have recently begun building trains with on-board wireless systems already equipped, supported by investments in track-side infrastructure from mobile operators in each country.

And in Scandinavia, in-train wireless connectivity has been successfully deployed on the Öresund train service, which links Copenhagen and Malmo. In addition to providing mobile coverage through around 12 miles of tunnels and across the ten mile long Öresund Bridge, the project faced the challenge of the fact that the service is run in conjunction with seven different train providers across DSB Öresund, Denmark’s rail operator, and Veolia Transportation, the Swedish equivalent.

It’s clear from these examples that existing technology can be used to overcome the challenges faced by train operators and mobile operators when it comes to providing mobile coverage on public transport.

But wireless systems are still far from common features on trains. It isn’t possible to receive mobile coverage across the entire network of many of the world’s major metro systems. For example, on the London Underground there is only cellular coverage available when the trains are travelling above ground – but even that is limited in many areas.

Logistics and co-operation
Along with the engineering aspect involved in any technology deployment, it’s important to consider who will be responsible for its funding and installation. Train companies, for example, aware of consumer demand for mobile coverage, will put it firmly at the heart of their drive to improve customer experience. But the actual logistics of delivering mobile connectivity to rail passengers can be difficult to balance.

While mobile operators may be responsible for investing in trackside infrastructure, they may not consider providing coverage capacity a priority, especially when other businesses could use that infrastructure to supply different services such as Wi-Fi. But if that infrastructure were used solely by the mobile operator that supplied it, many passengers would be left without any coverage at all, unable to use their preferred network provider.

An alternative is the neutral host model, where third parties will deploy and maintain the infrastructure, but which can prove costly for operators and lead to complications when looking to expand the network in the future.

Ideally, stakeholders from the train companies would co-operate with a number of mobile operators to share the costs of deployment and maintenance while, at the same time, improving coverage and capacity. Installations would be likely to happen far more quickly and at lower cost if this were the case, with passengers ultimately enjoying a better quality of service.

Logically, if mobile operators were to share the network infrastructure deployed across public transport networks, they would also share the costs. The substantial savings made from reducing both CapEx and OpEx could be used as a means of subsidising further improvements and expansion to the network, as well as any deployments of next-generation technology. And, of course, the involvement of multiple operators would mean that commuters could enjoy continuous connectivity, regardless of their preferred network.

Such co-operation would require much negotiation of course. For example, one operator might take the technical lead, another could cover the initial investment capital, and a third would take on the burden of the ongoing operational expenditure. While clearly rife with complexities, the benefits of a co-operative approach are clear. As demonstrated by the European examples, joint projects such as this do exist and are, indeed, becoming increasingly common.

The provision of reliable and consistent mobile coverage across Britain’s rail network undeniably faces a wealth of challenges although these shouldn’t overshadow the potential benefits. Passengers will be able to play or work on the move without interruption, network operators will enjoy a lucrative new revenue stream, and train companies will improve the commuting experience of their customers. If the UK’s train operators, in co-operation with the country’s mobile network providers, continue to invest in the appropriate infrastructure and technology, rail passengers across the country will soon be able to enjoy the ubiquitous mobile coverage they desire.

phil-sorsky

Phil Sorsky is head of service providers for Europe, CommScope

www.commscope.com