A new guide, Under pressure: tackling railway connectivity in 2016, outlines what independent wireless advisory firm Real Wireless believes the rail industry needs to do to achieve effective on-board wireless connectivity. Railway Strategies hears more from managing consultant OLIVER BOSSHARD

Railway Strategies: What are the main connectivity challenges facing train operators in 2016?

Oliver Bosshard: Rail operators in 2016 are facing pressure from all sides – customers, governments, regulators – to deliver better connectivity on their services. But responding to these demands is challenging due to a number of technical issues.

The first is how to enable connectivity itself. There are a number of options available to operators to achieve this, establishing direct connectivity to cellular networks from passenger devices or by using on-board equipment (like Wi-Fi) to effectively repeat the cellular signals.

The second is how to secure sufficient capacity for on-train usage. Provisioning enough capacity to cater to the equivalent of a ‘moving village’ of users poses issues for traditional approaches to network infrastructure. Passengers now expect to be able to email, browse and watch Netflix wherever they are.

However, these technical challenges are not insurmountable. Rather, the biggest fundamental challenge remains developing a business case that can deliver ROI on the technology investment that is required to overcome these technical challenges.

RS: Why is the business case such a significant challenge?

OB: In short, rolling out high capacity, stable and reliable on-board connectivity is expensive, while any return on investment will typically be slow and difficult to achieve or quantify.

The business case is complex because the direct sources of revenue it creates, for example passengers paying for Wi-Fi don’t automatically deliver sufficient ROI by themselves. This is compounded by the fact that passengers don’t expect to have to pay for on-board connectivity – however it is achieved.

There’s also little incentive for mobile operators to help out. From their point of view, with many consumers on fixed price voice and data plans, there is little additional revenue to be gained from investing in the provision of coverage along railway tracks. However, today the rail operators still rely mostly on the mobile operators’ coverage along the rail track.

Instead rail operators need to construct a business case that incorporates the indirect benefits of connectivity, for example efficiency savings through better asset tracking and remote maintenance, or improving their return by developing new customer services that can be monetised. By taking these and other opportunities a reasonable business case can emerge.

RS: Is the lack of a business case the reason why on-board connectivity is so poor at the moment?

OB: It’s a significant contributing factor, yes. If money was no issue, the best long-term solution would be to roll out dedicated trackside infrastructure along the length of the rail network, which would overcome many of the limitations of current wireless solutions.

But, of course, money is an issue and rail operators today need to ensure they get a return on any infrastructure rollouts. That’s why rail operators have tended to rely on simpler approaches, such as connecting on-board Wi-Fi to the surrounding cellular networks in an area via external carriage-mounted cellular antennas. This approach is certainly lower cost than many alternatives, but it limits capacity and service reliability.

Mobile operators also struggle to justify investment in improving rail coverage, and so typically only supply incidental coverage to the rail network. The operators’ average revenue per user, particularly in countries like the UK, is low. Therefore investment typically focuses on supplying coverage and capacity to populated areas, where there is little technical and business risk.

As a result of this conundrum, on-board connectivity is often unreliable and slow — frustrating passengers.

RS: So what are operators doing about it?

OB: Well to date many rail operators have focused on managing demand for on-board wireless rather than improving the supply. For example, East Midlands Trains in the UK, Via Rail in Canada and Deutsche Bahn in Germany have all adopted strategies that discourage non-priority passengers from using wireless services through paid access tiering. This approach improves reliability for priority customers at the expense of providing free connectivity to every passenger on-board.

East Midlands trains say that this approach has led to a 90 per cent uptake amongst passengers in first class, where the service is free, and a 10 per cent use rate in standard class, where a single journey internet session costs £4. In terms of maximising limited capacity, you can see the logic behind this approach.

However, in the face of increasing passenger demand this is ceasing to be a viable strategy for many operators. Rail passengers today view connectivity as a basic expectation, rather than a niche luxury. Because of the way people have got used to mobile working and using smartphones all the time, we see potential for a growing trend of passengers ‘voting with their wallets’, selecting journeys based on whether the rail operator offers some form of connectivity.

Amtrak in the US is perhaps the most high profile example of this trend. The quality of service of Amtrak’s on-board passenger Wi-Fi was so poor that it became increasingly frustrating for passengers – even to the point of drawing the ire of high-profile titles like the National Journal and Time. Overhauling on-board Wi-Fi became essential to Amtrak’s brand reputation to counter the negative perceptions of its customer service. As a result Amtrak has started to lay down its own trackside infrastructure across its national network, which can better support mass usage compared to the traditional carriage-mounted antenna approach. According to the company’s website, 90 per cent of Amtrak’s customers now have access to free on-board Wi-Fi.

RS: Are governments doing anything to help overcome the impasse?

OB: Governments across the world are taking a two-pronged approach to spurring rail operators into action.

On the one hand, some governments are forcing rail operators to commit to resolving this deadlock as a requirement under the terms of the franchising process. This is the approach that the UK has adopted, with the government demanding that train operators provide free Wi-Fi from 2017. We can see how this could encourage some more creative approaches to deliver the necessary technological enhancements.

On the other hand, some governments are taking a more direct approach by providing funding to rail operators to invest in trackside infrastructure. This funding reduces the upfront investment that a rollout requires, helping to make the business case more attractive.

For example, in Australia, the state government of Victoria has committed $40 million of funding to tackle mobile coverage blackspots across the region’s Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Seymour and Traralgon lines. Its own estimates suggest there is no mobile data coverage of any sort across 40 per cent of these lines. The funding will immediately enable improved mobile connectivity for passengers on-board, and reduce the initial outlay for rail operators looking to connect their own on-board solutions via the cellular networks.

RS: What recommendations would you make to the industry?

OB: Despite growing pressures from governments and passengers, I’d advise against a ‘quick-fix’ solution and instead look at more creative ways to deliver enhanced services to passengers. At the heart of this is a need to adopt a more collaborative approach between rail operators and mobile operators to developing a mutually beneficial business cases.

It is important to remember that rail travellers are both rail and mobile network customers at the same time, just like visitors to a venue. As a result, by working more closely together, both parties can open up opportunities for driving down the whole cost of deploying infrastructure. For example, the two groups could work together at an early stage to evaluate whether provision from the mobile operator’s network or dedicated on-board equipment is the better approach, and work together to standardise their implementation of that solution.

Rail operators also need to take into account both passenger and their own train operations requirements. In other words, looking beyond passenger Wi-Fi, can operators also use investment in wireless infrastructure to support better on-board train operator services, potentially even including mission-critical functionality? By bringing these requirements together in one architecture rail operators can create opportunities for generating value, helping recoup investment.

This sort of approach can also open up new avenues such as Internet of Things (IoT) applications. Since train operators have large numbers of dispersed assets — including trains, tracks and structures — there’s a huge opportunity to get more availability from rolling stock through the ability to detect technical faults early before they fail. Sensors on rolling stock and tracks can measure indicators of train performance — like temperature, vibrations, damp and more — and alert train managers should anything out of the ordinary occur. Managers can then schedule in just-in-time maintenance before faults escalate and cause downtime. Managing this process via a wireless IoT deployment is potentially a significant contributor to the ROI of investing in better connectivity on rail networks.

Other approaches could involve the use of on-board media servers that can provide multimedia content to passengers directly via the on-board Wi-Fi, rather than using the limited external network capacity. This is not dissimilar to a bring-your-own-device approach to the entertainment system you find onboard an aeroplane.

Although there remain challenges in terms of specific issues like capacity planning and allowing for future technology shifts, these are potentially valuable steps that can be taken by rail operators to benefit their businesses and improve customer experiences. While it may be necessary to seek out independent advice to help construct a specific business case, it is vital that operators don’t hold off on addressing this challenge, simply because their business does not yet see it as essential. Government and passenger pressure is increasing and a robust, financially-sensible rollout takes careful planning and consideration. Rail operators cannot afford to let time slip away.

Independent wireless advisory firm Real Wireless has been an advisor to organisations such as Network Rail and Transport for London

oliver-bosshardOliver Bosshard is managing consultant at Real Wireless