Constant Connectivity

By Simon Holmes, Head of Digital Communications at First Group and Mark Barrett, CMO at Blu Wireless

Published in Railway Strategies, Issue 155.

Reliable and uninterrupted connectivity is essential to people’s personal and professional lives. However, delivering a cost-effective solution to this demand has been hugely challenging in the rail industry. This has left passengers unsatisfied and operators, keen to provide an outstanding service, frustrated. But by leveraging the 5G millimetre wave (mmWave) spectrum, in particular the 57-71 GHz band, data rates in excess of 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) can be achieved, putting operators in a position to deliver a new commuter connectivity benchmark.

In light of this, First Group and Blu Wireless have been working together to develop a solution capable of providing train passenger Wi-Fi services. Using Blu Wireless’s 5G mmWave ‘Typhoon’ platform, which is suitable for infrastructure applications such as Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) and transportation, this solution is now in the final stages of development and ready for commercial deployment, initially in late 2019/early 2020 on the busiest section of the South Western Railway (SWR) line.

This will transform trains into mobile workspaces and relaxation centres, with passengers able to access the services they do at home and in the office while travelling at high speeds. Operators, meanwhile, will benefit from greater bandwidth, allowing them to optimise the live condition monitoring of their trains to help improve service reliability.

Perhaps most importantly, this 5G mmWave track-to-train solution is future proof. As Ofcom recently recommended in their October 2018 report to DCMS, by providing connection speeds of between 1-3 Gbps to trains of between 800-1000 passengers, a whole host of yet-to-be-realised applications will be supported. One thing is certain – constant connectivity will transform the rail industry as we know it today.

Adaptable technology

The current method for providing wireless connectivity to trains in the UK is based on the use of multiple 4G bearers, aggregated into a single data stream and delivered to passengers via an on-train Wi-Fi access point. This has proved problematic for a number of reasons.

Firstly, in most cases, Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) did not design their coverage with railways in mind. As trains pass through deep cuttings and tunnels, connectivity is easily compromised. Moreover, when a train is moving at high speeds through multiple mobile cells, both traffic loading and cell planning become difficult because each train would have to process the same traffic as several hundred 4G customers. Reliable connection speeds, as a result, have not been achieved.

Secondly, aggregated signals have been unable to cope with increasing customer connectivity demands. While several players in the industry have tried to solve these issues by using several forms of proprietary trackside equipment, they have often operated at lower frequencies (typically at 5 GHz). Generally, however, these solutions have neither been able to produce data rates which meet the expected demand, nor deliver the cost benefits required to justify wider deployment.

Ultimately, this has led to the exploration of higher mmWave frequencies where more bandwidth is available – particularly the 14 GHz across the 57-71 GHz band. Companies like Blu Wireless have managed to overcome significant technical challenges in order to deliver highly integrated technology, ready for deployment in numerous markets.

Blu Wireless’s ‘Typhoon’ platform, for example, operates by using small (<2kg) access points which are attached to lightweight rapid deployment trackside poles or stanchions. These connect with a complementary receiver typically located on the roof of the train, which is then connected to a Wi-Fi access point to provide passengers with connectivity. This means that there are no breaks in the connection even when the train is travelling through a tunnel or deep cutting, providing a consistent Wi-Fi experience for customers.

A win-win solution

 For commuters, this level of connectivity will support HD video conferencing, 3D gaming, video streaming as well as secure access to office applications and rapid internet browsing. It will also enable passengers to access their personal streaming accounts and subscriptions in real time, meaning that they will no longer have to plan and download their entertainment in advance.

Beyond on-board services, high-bandwidth connectivity enables increasing levels of automation for train operations. Building on IoT-connected devices which are already in use, operators will be empowered to address mechanical issues much more proactively.

By providing passengers with the connection speeds they need and leveraging 5G mmWave technology to prevent disruptions and safety issues, operators can consolidate their current franchises and strengthen their business cases for expansion. Reliable, modern rail experiences are likely to incentivise public transport more broadly too, which could help to reduce road congestion and carbon emissions in the future.

A rail connectivity benchmark

Constant connectivity is not only a problem on UK trains. Operators across the world face similar technical and monetary challenges to deliver solutions which satisfy customers. The FirstGroup and Blu Wireless partnership is a new model tackling an age-old problem – and it has the potential to be globally significant.

This is because train operators have not traditionally been involved in the delivery of connectivity to trains. By contrast, FirstGroup have been working with Blu Wireless’s solution over a series of track trials in order to develop and optimise how the 5G mmWave system might operate in practical rail deployment – including environmental and safety aspects. FirstGroup have also provided a fully managed neutral host solution, integrating trackside networks, Blu Wireless’s mmWave technology and on-train integration, which is crucial to deployment.

The possibilities that this dynamic provides – combined with connections that have significantly increased bandwidth – are huge. Everything from fully connected customer experiences, which pull every aspect of the journey together from end to end; to proactively monitoring operational conditions; to reducing the amount of newspaper waste on trains through readily available digitised versions, could soon become a reality.

Now, it is clear that the shortfalls of existing train connectivity technologies is over and that 5G mmWave technology has the power to provide a win-win solution for commuters and train operators alike.