Predicting the future is a tough business. And when it comes to fast moving technology, plotting a path is getting even harder. But in times of change, having a clear goal becomes all the more important.

In this spirit, the UK’s communications regulator, Ofcom, has set out a vision for what data connectivity will be required by 2025 on British trains. From their extensive research, in seven years time, a crowded commuter train is likely to need 3.6Gbps of mobile data capacity to meet the connectivity needs of its passengers. The aim of this report is to support the policy work of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on delivering fit-for-purpose mobile data services for rail travellers and covers three main areas –

  1. The level of data required per train
  2. What radio spectrum might be needed to meet this requirement, and
  3. How the regulator can make it available?

This detailed, insightful report is a strong document, but the question is, if this is what we need, how do we make it happen?

In order to find out about how this level of connectivity can be achieved, Luke Upton recently sat down with Andrew Conway, Director of Engineering at BAI Communications UK to find out more about the unique challenges that rail connectivity poses, and why a specific model offers a solution.

Key challenges and consideration

In a commentary attached to the release of the report, Ofcom stated that: “Designing a network to provide track-to-train connectivity will involve many different considerations other than the choice of spectrum band, such as determining the business model on which such a service would be run, how the deployment would be funded, and potential interoperability across multiple routes or TOCs.”

For Andrew, a telecommunications expert of over 25 years, delivering connectivity on the UK’s networks offers some significant challenges: “Cellular companies have done a great job rolling out their service to places where people live and as a result a lot of the coverage onboard is almost provided by accident. Despite this, connectivity on the UK’s rail corridors is still not where it should be. The UK rail network is a complex one, with lots of partners – network rail, train operators, rolling stock providers and mobile networks so making change to deliver the connectivity needed requires a high level of co-operation.”

“There’s a physical aspect to the challenge: train tracks are often in cuttings, or tunnels, offering very limited access to trackside. And the train carriages themselves can present challenges too. They travel extremely fast and the materials used to build them can create a ‘Faraday Cage’, preventing electronic signals from reaching the carriage interior. So considering all these factors, there is something of a perfect storm when it comes to delivering connectivity on the UK rail network” added Andrew.

Looking in more detail at the trackside environment, its’ not just a challenging physical environment but also one that is highly regulated and difficult for Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to gain access to work upon. As a result, currently there are not enough cellular masts in range of trains to deliver high-quality consistent coverage to passengers.

The solutions

And what exactly is needed? Well, the Ofcom report points firmly at supporting the UK government’s current proposals for making “uninterrupted” Wi-Fi and Mobile (5G) broadband speeds of up to 1Gbps (Gigabits per second) available on-board all UK mainline train routes by 2025.

The regulator’s report re states that: “We consider that, at these rates, passengers’ experience during the journey would be similar to the level of service they currently receive when using their mobile phone in a well-served area over a 4G network connection.”

Andrew sees the report with an admirably ambitious goal at its core. But now is the time to move to action: “Taking the Ofcom report as a starting point, the key question is how do we make this happen. 5G and millimetre wave technology is a deserving target, but the solution to be deployed should cater for all spectrum solutions – including today’s extensive 4G networks. Particularly important is the deployment and operating model.

In a fragmented rail network, who is going to lead on the delivery? For us at BAI Communications, the answer can be found in our Neutral Host model. With this, a single, shared infrastructure solution working on an open access basis is available to all MNO’s and technologies and operated by a third party. This approach reduces network lifecycle costs, support sharing and ensures high levels of connectivity.”

The Neutral Host model

This Neutral Host model, used by BAI Communications in their delivery of connectivity on the Toronto and New York (by Transit Wireless, a majority-owned BAI Communications company) metro networks can provide all the infrastructure required for the job – antennas, fibre optic links and remote Base Station Hotels for the radio equipment. And as in those North American partnerships, the model is set up to run for decades, and be able to incorporate new technologies as and when they become available.

The importance of delivering connectivity goes beyond just keeping people entertained on journeys, there’s a very real case for it supporting productivity. A recent BAI Communications survey of 1,000 UK rail users has revealed that consistent and quality wireless connectivity on trains could be the key to boosting individual and collective productivity in the UK – the rates of which have long lagged behind other developed economies. In a time of political uncertainty, delivering productivity through connectivity can be a big boost for UK PLC.

As our time comes to end, Andrew is very clear where he sees the importance of connectivity: “Among the general public, mobile coverage and Wi-Fi are increasingly considered as the essential ‘4th utility’, similar to water, gas and electricity. Passengers now expect a reliable and seamless service and if they are unable to use their devices onboard, the perception on their entire journey can be tarnished. So now is high time to get to work, to build the structure and Neutral Host model to deliver the connectivity that the UK transport network needs, route-by-route but following a national standard. BAI is proud of our work and experience so far and is tremendously excited at the opportunities that exist in the UK to make its rail network a leader in next generation connectivity.”

Source: SmartRail World