5G: An opportunity to revolutionise on-train connectivity

Source: RTM April/May 2019

Simon Holmes, group head of digital (engineering) at FirstGroup, introduces us to the 5G solution being delivered for the rail sector. 

FirstGroup and its partners are excited to be close to delivering a viable 5G millimetre Wave (mmWave) solution to the global rail market; one that can offer connectivity which until now, seemed unattainable. Demand for fast and reliable wi-fi on public transport grows and the solutions to meet this challenge are only just emerging. Moreover, it has not been certain, until now, that upgrades in technology will provide the step-change in connectivity that passengers wish to see.

Along with Blu Wireless and industry partners like Network Rail, FirstGroup are working to harness the 5G mmWave spectrum to achieve capacity of over one gigabit per second throughput to and from highspeed trains. In layman’s terms, this means a connection so powerful it will enable HD video streaming as well as reliable access to the cloud-based applications many of our passengers use to work and play.

The potential for this technology is enormous; from fully-connected customer experiences, which pull every aspect of the journey together from end to end; to proactively monitoring operational conditions to the benefit of infrastructure providers and passengers.

This project is breaking down barriers of commercial viability and technical feasibility that previously seemed intractable. During 2020, we plan to roll out this technology on our South Western Railway (SWR) franchise to create the first ‘gigabit railway’, with work already underway. The technology we are implementing can process volumes of data 100 times greater than is possible on current mobile deployments, vastly increasing the consistency and quality of the wi-fi that our passengers will enjoy on their journeys throughout this rail network.

The implementation of this technology will put us ahead of the curve and we are proud that FirstGroup is leading the way with this innovation once more. We hope that as time goes on, a wider part of the UK rail market can avail itself of 5G technology of this type. 

This partnership will revolutionise commuter connectivity with cutting edge innovation, but also with economic viability at the centre of it. The system is based on Blu Wireless’ ‘mmWave’ communication technology, which does not require the complex and expensive infrastructure of mobile systems. We believe that the combination of gigabit level data throughputs with cost-effective and ultra-low power operation will be instrumental in delivering FirstGroup’s customers with best-in-class on-train wi-fi services.

The success of this project, and others like it, is thanks to a few key suppliers and partners who have worked tirelessly to ensure its success, not least Blu Wireless and Network Rail. The SWR rollout will demonstrate the viability of such systems, hopefully to the delight of our customers and, in time, other networks across the UK, Europe and further afield.

We have worked hard over the last two-and-a-half years, most notably with the University of Bristol and Blu Wireless to reach this point where we are approaching the implementation of state-of-the-art on-train wi-fi. If all goes to plan, the SWR rollout will mark a step change in on-train connectivity for passengers, and we look forward to working with customers to gauge the success of this project in the months and years ahead.

FirstGroup is proud of is track record of innovation in rail and bus and we’re proud to be leading the way once again.


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