New strategy needed to tackle ‘digital deserts’ on rail routes
Source: RTM Dec/Jan 17
RTM’s David Stevenson looks at the perennial issue of poor mobile coverage on the railways, and how the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) wants the problem to be tackled.
Mobile coverage on Britain’s 19,000 miles of railway is notoriously poor, but the challenges to improve connectivity are not “insurmountable”. That was a key message which came out of NIC’s recent ‘Connected Future’ report into 5G and telecommunication technology.
NIC noted that unreliable and patchy coverage was in part a consequence of difficult geographies, such as tunnels and cuttings, and carriages and windows further impeding reception. And although it recognised that the current delivery model of existing mobile networks of towers – set some distance from the railway – is enabling some immediate challenges to be remedied, “it is unlikely to be a cost-effective way of achieving high-capacity continuous connectivity on trains in the long term”.
Instead, the commission concluded that a new model, one which relies on trackside infrastructure to support the deployment of high-capacity connectivity, is needed to address the issue of ‘digital deserts’.
“This will require the upgrade of our existing key mainline and metro rail routes, including the London Underground, and should be built in from the start for any new lines,” the report said.
“Work commissioned by the NIC has estimated costs for such an approach to be in the order of £500-£600m for the UK’s main rail routes. In a similar model to a roadside telecoms network, this network could ultimately be a commercial asset selling connectivity services to train operators, mobile network operators (MNOs), and the public sector, and the strategy for its deployment should aim to maximise private sector funding.”
Action required and different approaches
The commission, chaired by Lord Adonis, the former transport secretary, recommended that in order to deliver this step change the government must produce a plan by the end of 2017, with the infrastructure in place on the main rail and key commuter routes by 2025 at the latest. This is if it wants to offer a reasonable level of connectivity on a timescale consistent with the deployment of 5G networks.
NIC welcomed the government’s desire to improve mobile connectivity for rail passengers, especially through the commitment for TOCs to provide in-carriage wi-fi as part of new franchises.
However, it was noted that the franchise renewal process will not be completed until 2028. Questions have also been raised about whether this approach will provide futureproof connectivity for passengers. Under the plans, TOCs will be free to negotiate their own solutions with service providers in order to meet the service level metrics. But this is likely to result in a variety of approaches.
NIC noted that the first approach is to work chiefly with MNOs to use their networks to backhaul mobile data from the trains using commercially available spectrum and current 4G technologies, with “in fill” coverage (at, or close to, trackside) added where required to overcome connectivity issues, for example in tunnels. The alternative approach is to focus on delivery of dedicated trackside infrastructure, installed along the railways and using either licensed or unlicensed spectrum.
Recently, Matt Hancock MP, the digital policy minister, revealed in a parliamentary debate on the planned Digital Economy Bill that the minimum speed required on bids was only 1 megabit per second (Mbps) per passenger, which would only allow for “basic web browsing, basic email and social media activity”.
Hancock said that this minimum requirement would be increased by 25% a year and franchises are already exceeding it with stronger bids, with Abellio pledging it will provide up to 100Mbps per passenger by 2019 on the East Anglia franchise, rising to 500Mbps by 2021.
As well as focusing on the need for a new delivery model, NIC stated that the role of Network Rail Telecom will be central in ensuring the success of solutions chosen by TOCs.
“Trackside telecommunication assets and infrastructure are located in a hazardous and safety-critical environment,” said NIC. “The experience and competence of Network Rail Telecom will, therefore, be essential in any solutions that seek to leverage Network Rail assets.”
Lord Adonis also suggested that Highways England and Network Rail should take as much direct responsibility for improving coverage on the railways as mobile phone operators.
“Britain is 54th in the world for 4G coverage, and the typical user can only access 4G barely half the time. Our 4G network is worse than Romania and Albania, Panama and Peru. Our roads and railways can feel like digital deserts and even our city centres are plagued by not spots where connectivity is impossible,” he said. “That isn’t just frustrating, it is increasingly holding British business back as more and more of our economy requires a connected workforce.
“5G offers us a chance to start again and get ahead. If government acts now we can ensure our major transport networks and urban centres are 5G ready in time to give British industry every chance to lead the world in exploiting its applications. But none of this will matter unless we bring our mobile network up to speed.”
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