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23.10.15

Why the government’s consultation on ‘improving mobile communications to UK rail passengers’ is too restrictive

Guest blog by Graham Cove of Synaptix Technologies, which installed and maintained The Cloud equipment in all Network Rail stations over the last five years.

During the summer, the government issued a consultation document about improving mobile communications on the rail network and we are now awaiting feedback. While I acknowledge that mobile coverage along the train lines is the major bottleneck in the system, I believe that the scope of this document is too restrictive and is not looking at the medium- to long-term developments taking place in the wider public wi-fi/mobile space, or looking at a customer’s overall journey.

The main reason put forward as to why rail passengers want better mobile/wi-fi coverage is simply to be connected, both for voice, texts and internet access. This was also the situation in other public wi-fi locations a few years ago; however, many of those locations are now moving well beyond these simple reasons for offering public wi-fi.

Passengers will undoubtedly want free wi-fi (although somebody has to pay to install and operate it) and venue owners are therefore looking at what value they can derive from their wi-fi infrastructure to provide this. This would also apply to the train operating companies (TOCs) as most of them do not operate in a monopoly environment and have to compete for customers, with wi-fi/mobile coverage being a key customer driver.

Examples of added value include:

  • Enhanced wi-fi analytics – understand, through anonymous data, your passengers and what devices they use; dwell times in your stations and trains, movement patterns etc.
  • With customer permission – engage with your passengers, provide useful information, promotional vouchers etc. in real time, to enhance their journey.
  • Real-time notification of who is in your station and on your trains, allowing you to look up what else you know about them (transactional history, web activity, journey profiles etc.) to decide if engagement with them would be helpful (e.g. offer a free coffee after three journeys).
  • Apple Pay has launched mobile payments and soon handheld tablets will be used to take payments (see Apple stores today) requiring a high availability, secure wi-fi infrastructure, both on trains and in stations.
  • If a high availability, high-capacity wi-fi infrastructure can be made available then operational systems can use this rather than wired systems (e.g. wi-fi calling replacing wired telephones, wireless CCTV cameras, wireless equipment monitoring systems).

I believe that the on-board and station wi-fi infrastructure should be owned and operated by the TOCs (or Network Rail in large stations) rather than by Hotspot providers.

By owning the wi-fi infrastructure, the TOC can control the QOS and ensure it delivers to their requirements. They can then choose the best-of-breed providers for each of the applications they want to run over their infrastructure.

The government’s consultation document looks solely at the requirements for on-train or trackside connectivity, with only one comment about ‘seamless connectivity’. I believe the scope should be expanded to include all of the elements of a customer’s journey, most importantly the stations at both ends of all rail journeys. Connection at the station should be maintained when boarding a train (irrespective of which TOC is operating it).

Similarly, many TOCs also own the local bus companies delivering passengers to their stations and trains. Why can’t the session be maintained from the bus to the end of the train journey? Technically this can be done, but it needs thinking about before RFPs (requests for proposals) for the three different elements are rushed out separately (bus wi-fi, station wi-fi and on-train wi-fi).

With regards to on-board connectivity, this can be best achieved with wi-fi, which all passengers can access, rather than asking all four mobile operators to improve their own coverage. I believe that the UK government should follow the route in Denmark and get all of the mobile operators involved in enhancing coverage along train routes, possibly altering collaboration rules under certain circumstances so that costs are reduced.

In summary, the rail industry, at the moment, seems to see only two reasons for improving mobile connectivity and wi-fi services:

  1. To allow passengers to connect to the internet while on trains
  2. Provide infotainment to passengers (either to screens or personal devices)

The rail industry is lagging behind other sectors that are using the data from their wi-fi infrastructure to improve their operations, their customer experience and to promote a permission-based engagement with their customers. This is an opportunity not only to improve the mobile coverage across the rail network, but to also leapfrog to the front of wi-fi developments.

About the author

Graham Cove is director of business development at Oxfordshire-based Synaptix Technologies. He previously worked for two of the largest wi-fi operators in the UK, as UK managing director of The Cloud and director of wi-fi at EE. Synaptix Technologies has provided wi-fi services and equipment on the rail network for many years and has installed and maintained The Cloud equipment in all Network Rail stations over the last five years and also in London Overground stations. The company has also maintained T-Mobile equipment in Network Rail stations for EE wi-fi over the last four years.

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