On track to better coverage

“Sorry, I’m on the train!” Mobile blackspots and not-spots mean this phrase still resonates across the UK’s rail networks. Unfortunately, intermittent mobile connectivity on our railways is still an accepted part of the travel experience. Conductor strikes by Southern Rail and the frequency of delayed, cancelled and inconsistent services have all added to commuter discontent, which has been exacerbated by the fare increases brought in this month.

Yet even when services are running smoothly it is the problem of mobile connectivity which no doubt tops the complaints list of the majority of passengers, whether travelling for work or pleasure. Britain is home to the world’s oldest rail network, yet poor mobile coverage means our innovation in this area seems resigned to history.

Anyone who has travelled by train in this country knows that trying to browse the internet, send emails, or make phone calls can be almost impossible at times. This is a nuisance for travellers seeking entertainment, but a point of real contention for commuters who have forked out thousands for a season ticket, hoping to use the valuable commute to catch up on work.

Rail fares increased by an average of 2.3% at the start of the month, so what additional benefits are now being enjoyed by commuters? A guaranteed seat? Arriving at their destination on time? Reliable mobile coverage? Unfortunately, at present, the majority of rail operators are unable to satisfy these demands. This means a rather raw deal for rail users, who face a “digital desert” if they choose to – or have no choice but to – travel by train.

Improving connectivity should be a prerequisite for rail operators if fares are hiked for passengers. This investment would help ameliorate tensions between rail users and operators, as well as delivering a significant economic boost to the UK as a whole. Being able to use a device uninterrupted on the train could help increase productivity for those wanting to use the commute to catch up on work. It could also cut the time spent in an office for those able to include the commute in their daily working hours. Furthermore, people relocating to the capital to limit commuting time may reconsider if operators could provide connectivity and a higher quality commuting experience. This could help ease overcrowding in London and divert investment to other areas of the country.

The benefits of ‘getting connected’ are not limited to the rail users though; rail operators have much to gain. With commuters lucky to get a seat on many services, any additional on-board facilities operators are able to offer will stand out as stark service differentiators. While many rail users’ choice of operator is dictated by the route they travel, others may very well choose an operator and route based on the quality of experience. On-board connectivity could therefore prove a very persuasive factor. Updating trains with an on-board repeater provides a solution to connectivity woes, and although an initial expenditure is required, operators stand to gain in the long-run.

The UK government has thankfully recognised the importance of connectivity on trains, and issued a paper in November 2016 outlining its Mobile Connectivity on Rail policy. The policy will apply to new rail franchises in a number of areas and 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. Although this may sound like a step forward in theory, in reality Wi-Fi will not prove an efficient or cost-effective method of coverage. The high number of passengers connecting to a Wi-Fi network – especially considering the usual overcrowding commuters face – will create a bottleneck of data demands, slowing down speeds and creating a poor quality service.

On-board Wi-Fi is also pretty inconvenient for the passenger; those of you who have used public Wi-Fi in places like airports or stadiums will understand the tedium of having to register for access. On a train, passengers could have to register each time they travelled with a different rail operator, which could even be several times on a longer journey.

Even if train companies do offer Wi-Fi on-board, this still does not solve the issue of passengers who – understandably – want cellular coverage throughout their journey. People expect to be able to make phone calls and use their device wherever they are, and in many cases a passenger’s data speed and connection will be a lot faster than that offered by the train operator’s Wi-Fi. Finally, there are greater costs involved with the government’s proposed solution. There is a high cost associated with data backhaul for Wi-Fi systems using cellular network to offload capacity off the train, and this cost will apply to both the rail operator and mobile operator.

There is an alternative. We launched the idOBR in August last year, an upgraded version of our digital on-board repeater which enables train passengers to connect to 2G, 3G and 4G services throughout their journey. The solution offers MIMO, multi-technology and multi-band support in a compact form, reducing the space needed for telecoms equipment and increasing passenger coverage on board.

Strikes by Southern Rail and Tube staff last week coupled with an increase in train fares will only serve to tarnish the reputation of our great British railway network. Improving connectivity on trains could be the panacea that appeases passengers and modernises our services.

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Anthony_Sutton_Blog Anthony Sutton Director, Coverage, Cobham Wireless

Anthony has over 20 years experience in international sales and business development within the Engineering & Telecommunication industry. He has a good understanding of LTE, UMTS, GSM, GSM-R, Tetra, LMR / PMR technologies, currently supporting the delivery of coverage solutions for multi-operator, multi- technology clients.

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