INGO FLÖMER, talks about the scale of the challenge ahead as rail operators square up to the demands for on-board connectivity across the rail network

Over a third of UK rail routes don’t have comprehensive mobile operator coverage, over 50% of passengers rate on-board mobile connection as poor or intermittent, and almost half say internet speed is slow or completely unusable! These findings from the Department for Transport (DfT), illustrate the extent of the connectivity problem riling rail users today, and should act as a catalyst to spur the government, rail operators and mobile network operators into action.

In today’s connected society, consumers expect to be able to use smartphones and other devices whenever and wherever they are, so why should they be prevented from doing so on public transport? This is an issue that’s especially aggravating for rail users, who in recent months have had to contend with fare hikes, overcrowding and industrial action. Improving mobile coverage on rail networks across the UK should be a priority, both to help appease disgruntled passengers and to deliver a level of connectivity which is now an expected and necessary part of life.

Currently, limited connectivity is provided on some trains through free on-board Wi-Fi. However, a third of all major rail franchises still do not provide this, and the standard specification is only 1Mbps per passenger. Some of the largest train operators including Arriva Wales, Great Northern, Southeastern, Southern, Thameslink and London Midland do not provide any Wi-Fi coverage, which means that, with only patchy cellular coverage available, a large proportion of the UK’s rail networks are effectively connectivity dead zones.

Waking up
The UK boasts the world’s oldest railway system yet its reputation as a pioneer of the industry has been tarnished by a lack of innovation and failure to modernise. Government advisory body, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) published a report in December last year which recognises the inadequate provision of reliable connectivity on trains. Lord Adonis, head of the NIC, berated the ‘frankly appalling’ coverage currently available on the UK’s rail network, sections of which he described as ‘digital deserts’. The NIC report recommends deploying new trackside communications infrastructure to solve the problem, stating that the government must set out plans for its delivery in 2017. This leaves just ten months for a viable solution to be announced.

The government seems at last to have woken up to the problem, with proposals for change having been mooted, and the issue finally getting the attention it deserves. The government released a report in November last year which recommends the adoption by rail operators of free on-board Wi-Fi. The paper states that the choice of internet-to-train solution(s) is for the bidder to decide, though it assumes that these bidders will seek to reuse investment in on-train Wi-Fi in order to improve mobile coverage.

The scale of the problem
This may sound like good news for passengers, however, Wi-Fi will not offer an efficient or cost-effective method of coverage, as the large number of passengers which will need to connect to the Wi-Fi network will create a bottleneck of data demands, reducing speeds and impacting service quality. In addition to a poor quality of service once connected, actually connecting to the service in the first instance is problematic. Passengers wanting to connect would likely have to fill out forms or connect via their social media account. For travellers, this lengthy process is a nuisance, and for network providers simply a means to gather and capitalise on user data. Furthermore, equipping trains with Wi-Fi does not solve the problem of poor cellular connectivity, making it difficult or impossible for passengers to make calls or send SMS during their journey.

Passengers are not the only ones to struggle with onboard Wi-Fi; there are also significant technical challenges associated with its deployment. Wi-Fi is based on carrier sense multiple access – collision avoidance (CSMA-CA) technology, which is unable to cope with high-density environments. The system is quickly overloaded when high numbers of passengers try to connect to the same Wi-Fi access point, and the physical presence of numerous passengers on board also poses a challenge, blocking signal between access points and user devices. In addition, there is a high cost associated with databackhaul for Wi-Fi systems using cellular network to offload capacity off the train, a cost which will apply to both the rail operator and mobile operator.

Tried and tested
However, alternatives are available which can deliver high quality cellular connectivity and allow passengers to connect to their own mobile network. Digital on-board repeaters allow passengers to reliably connect to 2G, 3G and 4G services, meaning they can make phone calls, send messages and browse the internet throughout their journey. This system uses MIMO (multiple-input multipleoutput)technology and features multi-band support. Its small, compact form reduces the space needed for telecoms equipment; great news for rail operators who can increase passenger capacity on board. This system has already proven successful in the UK; in 2014 a pioneering project saw the installation of digital repeaters on a fleet of 27 East Midlands Trains which run between London and Sheffield on a daily basis. The digital onboard tri-band repeater units are fed by an antenna on the outside of the train which picks up coverage. This is then sent via radio frequency cable to two antennas inside each carriage, which distribute signal to passengers.

The result? A significant improvement to network performance and network quality, allowing passengers to reliably use their devices throughout the entirety of their journey. This success has been replicated across Europe, with on-board repeater solutions having been deployed in most countries with advanced rail networks. These include Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Poland and Russia, with the systems delivering high quality cellular coverage despite trains on some of these networks exceeding speeds of 300kmph.

The UK government has shown its commitment to improving connectivity on board trains, and recognised the benefits this could bring to both the customer experience, and the UK economy. Providing reliable mobile connectivity on all rail networks means that commuters are able to maximise productivity on their journey to and from work, unimpeded by the lack of phone signal which currently plagues many passengers.

However, on-board Wi-Fi is not the solution. Both deploying digital on-board repeaters and on-board Wi-Fi infrastructure require an initial investment, yet Wi-Fi is unlikely to reap the same rewards as the boost to mobile coverage delivered by on-board repeater technology. Installing these systems could offer rail networks an advantage over their competitors, enabling connectivity which would be a service differentiator.

The UK government and service providers must get back on track when it comes to delivering reliable connectivity on our public transport systems. The ideas considered thus farare a positive step, but it is essential that time and money is invested to consider all possible options, in order to deliver the best possible service for rail users.

Ingo Flömer is director product management, Cobham Wireless