Rail commuters across the globe have made it clear that they want governments to invest in 5G networks and understand the benefits those investments will provide. More specifically, advanced mobile networks and smart technology are critical to enabling the transit services rail users expect and must be seamless and smart.

These are some of BAI Communications’ key findings in our 2020 Connectivity outlook report. We surveyed more than 2,400 rail users across five major cities – Hong Kong, London, New York, Sydney, and Toronto – about their public transport needs, experiences, and expectations.

Furthermore, our research indicates that data analytics and real-time information services will play a key role in rebuilding public transport ridership through and following the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it was conducted before COVID-19’s classification as a pandemic, it nevertheless shows how transit authorities can create safe and trusted environments for their riders.

We understand that most transit operators’ budgets are currently under stress, making capital expenditures difficult, if not impossible. An effective way to achieve the outcomes without affecting the balance sheet, or even cashflow, is to implement a neutral host model. This is where a provider such as BAI funds, operates, and maintains the network infrastructure on behalf of the transit operator and encourages mobile network operators (MNOs) to share spectrum on the infrastructure – thereby also enabling the MNOs to achieve their outcomes without affecting the balance sheet or cashflow.

Adopting this business model effectively means that both transit and mobile network operators can conserve their capital and concentrate on service delivery and improvement, not data network construction, maintenance and ongoing development.

Rail users support infrastructure investment – including 5G

The report’s key message is that riders strongly endorse the need for connectivity. In particular, a considerable majority (91%) believe world-class cities should have seamless mobile coverage above and below ground. There is identical support (91%) for government investments in network infrastructure, including 5G specifically (83%). While 5G has been a buzzword for some time now, deployment has begun accelerating around the world this year.

Carriers are rolling out 5G networks and mobile device manufacturers are releasing 5G-compatible devices. Once users become accustomed to them, their benefits will be hard to give up, even if only for the daily commute. These benefits include speed, low latency and longer battery life, as well as ability to use the advanced apps that require a 5G signal.

However, not all of 5G’s benefits will be immediately available, as some will need broader market penetration and higher device numbers. This shouldn’t deter authorities, who mustn’t wait too long before getting their infrastructure plans underway as the technology and its uptake moves at a much faster pace than infrastructure planning and implementation. Operators that took a ‘wait and see’ attitude towards 4G and 3G found themselves playing catch-up as the technologies became widespread, putting unnecessary pressure on resources and operations.

New York City provides a good example of the appropriate foresight. Transit Wireless (majority-owned by BAI) is already providing infrastructure for new and emerging technologies, such as 5G and edge computing. We have built five data centres across the five boroughs to provide cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity for subway riders. As transit authorities deploy sensors and Internet of Things devices, the network will be ready to serve content and services using 5G, edge computing, and other newly developed technology over time.

Connectivity improves public safety

The report also shows an unexpected role for data network infrastructure: guardian of public health and safety. Riders will only return to pre-pandemic levels of public transport if they believe it’s safe to do so (particularly with working from home becoming increasingly more acceptable). Advanced connectivity that allows authorities to monitor their physical environments in real-time can play a critical role here.

One obvious measure is station, platform, and carriage passenger management. If transit operators can monitor and predict passenger flows, they can better manage or avoid crowding.  Advanced technologies include smart cameras feeding data back to a control room or fitted with built-in edge computing capabilities. Such devices can identify passengers and whether they’re wearing masks, check social distancing, and generate alerts as required.

Survey respondents are firmly in favour of their anonymised data being used for public transport system improvements, which would include such measures. A majority (81%) of riders feel comfortable with authorities using their anonymised personal data to facilitate them. From this we can infer improved understanding and maturity regarding data collection over the past year.

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is one example of an organisation at the forefront of these technologies. Working together with BAI, the TTC has designed and deployed a data analytics solution. With access to anonymised device association data collected by BAI, the TTC can develop insights into foot traffic at stations and crowding throughout the system. Moreover, as BAI adds additional capabilities, the TTC’s ability to gain and action more valuable insights from data analytics will help it to respond flexibly to customer needs and even anticipate them.

Counting connectivity’s benefits

Looking at the report’s findings in aggregate, three key benefits emerge from high-quality network infrastructure:

  • Connectivity: the simple fact of having continuous, high-quality connectivity is itself a significant benefit. It improves riders’ safety and also their wellbeing, as they can work while they travel, stay connected with friends and family, or enjoy some leisure time with books, movies, music, and games.
  • Apps: network infrastructure makes apps more useful. Advanced apps can improve productivity, personal safety and wellbeing, and rail transport usage. Mobile apps delivering csutomised, real-time information (such as trip updates) or complex workflows (such as video editing) can deliver significant personal, professional, and productivity benefits.
  • Operations: connectivity can help transit authorities significantly improve their operational efficiency. Virtual monitoring and proactive maintenance incorporating all of an escalator’s or carriage’s data feeds becomes viable. Schedules and services can be responsive to short- and long-term demands. And strategic planning can benefit from rich data and analytics generating new business intelligence.

BAI Communications: committed to infrastructure

As a leading 5G neutral host infrastructure provider, BAI makes a meaningful contribution to the urban communities of our host cities, funding and deploying infrastructure construction ourselves as well as providing extensive anonymised data handling capabilities for key citizen-dependant organisations.

We help public transport operations become predictive and proactive. Transit authorities use data from sensors to feed analytics and AI and, in turn, model operational scenarios, forecast staff and service schedules, and plan better station, platform and network configurations.

On the customer service side, sensor data and its associated analytics can provide high-quality connectivity and real-time information to passengers.

Smart infrastructure, 5G, and data are the future of public transport and the foundations of any smart city. BAI Communications has a long history of working with local authorities and government and we are ready to put communications infrastructure in place to support any city through its COVID-19 recovery and into the years beyond.