As the first blog of this series (‘How 5G will transform rail transport’) explored, the next generation of connectivity will deliver advanced network capabilities. These capabilities include 5G wireless and edge computing, which will help provide the connected services people and businesses demand.

While most network providers’ 5G deployments have focused on adding more network capacity, transit authorities are beginning to realise its potential to enable new operational solutions.

The public understands these benefits too. Our Connectivity outlook report 2020 asked rail users to prioritise various connected systems. Their top three responses were:

  • Connected sensors which can monitor rail networks
  • Warnings about out of order escalators, elevators and other disability access options
  • ‘Predictive maintenance’ systems which monitor the health, efficiency and safety of rail vehicles

These priorities reflect the public’s growing awareness that smart, data-driven systems can enhance their travelling experience and make their rail networks more efficient. 5G wireless, edge computing and other advanced technologies will enhance these systems. Their improved performance will create new opportunities to share information, improving operational efficiency and customer experience.

5G and edge computing: an ideal combination for rail networks

One of 5G’s most promising enablers is the combination of ubiquitous connectivity with edge computing. Edge computing is a distributed network topology that uses localised infrastructure rather than centralised storage and compute. It enhances network performance by locating data and applications closer to the endpoints they serve.

Local processing maximises 5G’s capabilities, including improvements to latency, concurrent connection numbers, session transfer speed and reliability, security and power consumption.

This decentralised approach is well-suited to rail networks with their wide geographic distributions and the requirement to connect moving trains. With 5G and edge computing, operators won’t need expensive servers installed onboard their rolling stock to handle critical applications.

Track maintenance illustrates the potential benefits. Currently, most operators use a separate car for track inspection. By combining 5G and edge computing, every train can become a track inspection vehicle, with connected sensors generating high volumes of data in real time. In turn, this data allows for more granular analytics and a better understanding of how different parts of the physical network respond to use.

Neutral hosts: shaping connectivity’s future

Though 5G and edge computing are powerful when combined, deploying both at scale requires complex and dense networks, including more antennas, fibre, power, wireless cells, servers and data centres. The challenge is ensuring that these networks are designed, deployed and managed effectively.

In the rail transport context, trackside infrastructure upgrades can provide the transmission and backhaul capacity needed to deliver high-quality telecommunications services that fit today’s needs and are ready for tomorrow’s.

The capital and operational investment required for these networks are significant. In most cases, network ownership and management are not feasible for a single Mobile Network Operator (MNO) to absorb, especially in an environment of increasing capital constraints.

One solution to these technical and financial challenges is to adopt the neutral host model. A Neutral-Host Network (NHN) is a third-party-owned cellular network that provides wholesale mobile coverage solutions to MNOs or other communications service providers (CSPs).

The NHN model is flexible, and in addition to upgrading, building and owning networks, neutral host providers can partner with transit authorities to build jointly owned private networks. This flexibility makes it easier for transit authorities to evolve their services and shield partner organisations from design, operational and other complexities, such as multi-operator support, edge-core integration and network optimisation.

For transit authorities and MNOs, accessing a single, unified network infrastructure avoids the time, cost and potential service interruptions associated with each MNO installing their network hardware on platforms and trains.

These options represent various forms of network sharing that can enhance competition, improve utility for consumer and business mobile users, and enable government and municipal authorities to achieve their strategic, financial and other objectives.

In its capacity as an NHN, BAI has partnered with transport authorities and MNOs across the globe. We are building ‘stations of the future’ that bring connected services into a cohesive mobile ecosystem. These include:

  • Countdown clocks: in New York, BAI helped the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) deploy train-mounted transmitters and receivers in its tunnels. They connect with the network and update on-platform arrival and departure times notifications in real-time.
  • Help Point Intercoms: BAI deployed more than 1200 intercoms across the MTA’s system, connected to a dedicated 4.9GHz public safety broadband network.
  • Driverless train applications: in Hong Kong, BAI deployed connectivity to transmit real-time, in-carriage video data to a remote control centre. The solution includes train alarms and live updates for the infotainment programming shown on the trains’ TV panels.
  • Live passenger data: BAI deployed a data analytics solution for the Toronto Transport Commission that provides anonymised device association data access. This data gives insights into foot traffic, crowding and origin-destination patterns across the system.

5G can accelerate these solutions, multiplying their benefits and generating new operational efficiencies and service improvements.

Integration and opportunity

The neutral host model can play a significant role as cities learn how to manage COVID-19 and prepare for future public health concerns. Beyond ‘stations of the future’, we must build ‘cities of the future’. These cities will feature pervasive connectivity with smart devices gathering and sharing data in real-time. NHN providers bring such ambitions within reach by building the infrastructure and technology backbone required.

Respondents in our Connectivity outlook report 2020 nominated ‘transport and mobility’ as the top-ranked service they believed could be improved with better technology and connectivity. Similarly, 86% of rail users agreed that an ‘evolved’ rail network that allowed them to work effectively as they travelled would benefit them.

Public transport is a critical part of a city’s prosperity and its citizens’ wellbeing. Transport authorities are responding by evolving their offerings beyond getting people from ‘A to B’. Responding to the public’s desire to be connected while travelling and feel safe and secure while in transit is the key to restoring ridership and revenue.

Thus, transit authorities must design their networks to accommodate future demands as well as current needs. Designing with the future in mind will deliver the level of service demanded by consumers today and provide foundational network infrastructure for new and emerging services and applications.

From MNOs to transit operators and municipalities, there are many cases where neutral host models make good commercial sense. Innovative technologies and shared infrastructure can enhance consumer, business and public safety connectivity. By opening up areas that otherwise would be difficult to service and providing continuous, high-quality connectivity  we can ensure that today’s networks are ready for tomorrow’s demands.