The 5G High-Speed Trains of the Future are here now

Rail operators’ vision of 5G high-speed trains is much nearer than many think. Recent advances in wireless 5G mmWave mean that reliable, multi-gigabit connectivity is now possible onboard even at hundreds of miles per hour.

Though bringing Wi-Fi to trains was a revolutionary feat in itself at the time, the system was not designed to cope with an increasingly connected world. Constant movement, changes in speed of travel and varied rail architecture such as tunnels, curves and cuttings all impact signal strength.

This inconsistency ultimately leads to varying internet service reliability – 66% of train commuters in the UK report finding it impossible to connect to Wi-Fi onboard. With growing numbers of users looking to get online on every single journey, there is now an urgent demand for faster connectivity. A technical overhaul is needed.

Is 5G the answer for high-speed train connectivity?

5G will undoubtably resolve the speed side of the commuter connectivity dilemma. At 100 times faster than 4G technology, 5G can provide multi-gigabit internet access that is rapid enough to serve rail passengers for years to come. 5G technology can supply 1000 times higher data volumes than its predecessor, as well as up to 100 times faster end user data rates. This means 5G will provide the necessary coverage for the increasing number of devices needing connectivity at faster speeds.

However, speed alone won’t solve the reliability issue. Upgrading to 5G technology is the perfect solution in theory to increased connectivity demand but in practice can entail extortionate budgets. Cell towers have to be built and fibre optic has to be laid all along the track. Even then, the integration between existing technology and the new technology could prove to be complex if fibre alone is used. As a result, rail innovators are now looking to mmWave as an alternative. By leveraging mmWave technology, rail operators can resolve traditional challenges associated with fibre-based high-speed rail network implementation, thanks to mmWave’s speed, reliability, and straightforward deployment and integration. By leveraging mmWave technology, rail operators can implement 5G networks that are both fast and dependable, and don’t face the deployment issues of fibre.

5G mmWave will drive global rail connectivity

5G mmWave networks are smart and self-organising. As soon as signal is affected by curves in the track, trees or other obstacles, the network automatically shifts the direction of traffic from one small cell to another. All passengers experience is consistently high-quality Wi-Fi, none the wiser of the intelligent re-routing happening in the background.

Due to its higher bandwidth, mmWave is a future-proof option for rail connectivity. The resilient technology is able to support extremely data-intensive applications demanding up to 10 Gbps, from today’s HD video streaming to tomorrow’s VR headsets.

“People expect travel time to be useful, they want to do something,” explained Sabina Jeschke of German railway operator Deutsche Bahn at a recent 5G Summit in Berlin. “People tweet on trains – they also download movies and watch YouTube. Think about voice communication: chatbots require more bandwidth than what’s needed for simple text so we’re facing even more demand.” 5G mmWave networks meet this demand effectively by increasing service uptime, thereby boosting commuter productivity.

In comparison with costly 5G networking alternatives such as fibre, 5G mmWave is flexible in terms of both budget and deployment. Already, there is an initial saving if the unlicensed band is leveraged for mmWave connectivity, as there are no licence costs. And as for deployment, advanced mmWave networking techniques incorporate software-defined networking principles, supporting much smoother third-party integration. This means that rail operators can benefit from 5G mmWave networking without having to drastically alter their existing connectivity infrastructure.

How is 5G mmWave being implemented on board?

Rail operators are increasingly recognising the potential of 5G mmWave technology for high-speed train connectivity. Earlier this year, rail giant FirstGroup made headlines in a UK first, partnering with Blu Wireless on the country’s first 5G network for high-speed rail.

These innovative 5G mmWave networking techniques have huge potential for global deployment. Most 5G rail implementations thus far have focused on train stations rather than onboard connectivity, such as China’s Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station and the UK’s Birmingham New Street Station. This is in spite of the fact that 5G mmWave technology for high-speed rail is already available now.

What’s next for 5G high-speed trains?

Overseas rail operators looking to deploy their own 5G networks can only gain from a faster route to 5G through mmWave. With its ease of implementation, 10Gbps speeds and self-organising resilience, 5G mmWave is uniquely suited to the complex demands of high-velocity rail connectivity.

Following the example set by FirstGroup and Blu Wireless, we are likely to see more and more countries implementing 5G mmWave high-speed train networks in future. And this progress will have an everyday impact too, enabling extraordinary experiences for tomorrow’s rail passengers.