Rail connectivity – further down the track

Passenger connectivity on trains is not a new topic. Unfortunately, neither are the issues it throws up.

Of course one central problem doesn’t change. If you are trying to guarantee continuous communications and sufficient capacity to a moving village, issues like dropped calls, slow data performance, blocking and handover become much trickier in such circumstances.

It’s entirely achievable technically – but it’s a problem economically, and infrastructure in proximity to railways has its own challenges. You are essentially dealing with a very short burst of capacity demand – and then no demand at all as the train moves quickly on. That means an enormous outlay for guaranteed service at all points along the journey for relatively low usage when averaged over time.

Of course, today’s Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) want to offer data, streaming, and voice services anywhere they reasonably can. Train companies and governments want to promise gigabit speeds. But who is going to pay for that? And what level of train coverage is economically and technical feasible? 500 megabits per second? A gigabit? Unrestricted usage?

Then there are the trains themselves. Most trains resemble Faraday cages – a large chunk of metal that is a barrier to electromagnetic (wireless) signals. What is the answer? Onboard antennas and equipment to overcome that signal barrier? Special low signal-loss windows?  And again, what would this cost?

In the rail environment the balance between an acceptable level of service and an acceptable level of investment from the interested parties appears to be difficult to achieve. At Real Wireless our approach has been to model the different scenarios so that the most realistic costs for different service levels to the passengers can be understood in advance of any “promises” or investment.

Speaking of cost, most countries still have a big population with phones that do not support VoLTE (the 4G based voice service), so mobile operators might feel they have to add 2G or 3G technology along the railway track to support ongoing voice services. But the rail GSM standard, GSM-R at 900 MHz, has a coexistence problem with 2G or 3G technologies that may operate in the 900 MHz band. Circuit-switched fallback (CSFB) to 2G or 3G operating at 1800 or 2100 MHz is a possibility – if you are willing to pay for vastly increased cellular density and multiple technologies. But is it worth it?

There are also country-specific issues. In the UK for instance, there is a high number of involved companies and stakeholders with different views and ideas that are operating regional services. Can they all agree on what they want?

And then of course, there are the MNOs. This is an occasion when private networks or neutral hosts would make sense. But can MNOs be encouraged to work together? Would they connect to a neutral host solution? What is the commercial model – who will fund, contribute and benefit from shared infrastructure? And what can vendors bring to the table? Will CRAN or DAS play a role?

Wireless technologies for railway operation is another issue. The Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) is the future worldwide telecommunication system designed by the UIC (the worldwide professional association representing the railway sector and promoting rail transport), in close cooperation with the different stakeholders from the rail sector. It is going to be the successor to GSM-R but also a key enabler for rail transport digitisation. So, should we just wait until GSM-R runs its course and start again? Or can we plan and benefit from MNO and railway comms infrastructure sharing opportunities today?

Real Wireless boasts a vast amount of experience in tackling many of these questions over the years, but one or two blogs will not be enough to deal with them all. The experience we have built up can be used by our customers to help them reach strategic decisions quickly that can be used as solid foundations to deliver what they need both in terms of service and budget. If you would like to discuss this further, please contact us and we can discuss your needs. and together we can take rail connectivity a little further down the track.