Why Wait for 5G? The Challenges of Railway Connectivity – Solved – Today (Part 2)
Recently I blogged about how Cisco are working with ScotRail (the train operator) and Network Rail Telecom (the track operator) in Scotland to deliver a trial of the world’s fastest in-train WiFi, an evolution of work done earlier on “Project SWIFT”. I also described a school of thought that suggests the problem of railway passenger connectivity is best solved with 5G – something that was suggested indeed in the UK Industrial Strategy released earlier this week. While there is no question that 5G technologies can help, why wait until (arguably) 2025 to solve this problem when Cisco has made a huge step forward today? Let me, then, give some background on the challenges we’ve overcome to deliver this connectivity step-change today. I will also provide a point-of-view on how strategic this project could be for not only Scotland, but the UK as a whole, including in the race to 5G.
Making It Happen
You may be thinking – “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?”, as I was asked at a recent review meeting. There are a number of reasons – people and expertise, process, and technology.
People, Relationships & Expertise
My brief description in last week’s blog does a complete injustice to the investment that Cisco – both financially and in people’s time (including significant expertise from my colleagues in Cisco Services) –has made in bringing this to life.
We’ve built excellent relationships across ScotRail and Network Rail – it has to be said that the staff in both organizations, coupled with the collaborative environment we have found in Scotland, are the key reasons why we’ve made such fast progress towards the live trial.
The challenges of running public data traffic over the safety critical infrastructure of Network Rail were significant. Notably, Cisco is the first organization to pass the railway safety cases (as required by procedures) and convince Network Rail Scotland and their close partners ScotRail (the train operating company) that our network design could maintain safe railway operation at the same time as running a public data service over trackside infrastructure. As the UK budget announcements filtered through last week, it wasn’t surprising to see MNOs remark on the challenges that they have struggled to overcome in regard to rail connectivity. Cisco has made the investments in understanding and complying to customer process, and has applied the best expertise, including Cisco Services networking experts to overcome these – and consequently it’s Cisco that is able to deliver the world’s fastest railway WiFi in my own backyard.
Careful network design and mast placement ensure that there are no gaps in coverage, with seamless 200ms transfer between masts (each connected to trackside fibre, currently used only for rail signalling), delivering a seamless WiFi experience at 150mph. Finally, Cisco has applied the latest WiFi technology in this design. This makes it possible to deliver an average of 300 Mbps to the train – which is a substantial step function increase over current technology, thereby transforming customer experience.
The (Rail) Track to 5G
You could be forgiven for thinking that I’m against 5G. Not at all. Cisco’s railway initiatives in the UK could, in fact, play a major role in the accelerated adoption of 5G in the UK (and I’m sure, elsewhere). Deloitte, the consulting firm, has highlighted that insufficient fibre exists in the US to exploit 5G – and classes it as a “national imperative” to invest is further fibre deployment. Further, according to the Cisco Visual Networking Index Forecast, mobile offload exceeded cellular traffic for the first time in 2015. Fifty-one percent of total mobile data traffic was offloaded onto the fixed network in 2015. We will, therefore, see increasing demand for more fibre capacity as 5G transforms the number of devices connected to the internet.
Cisco’s success in collaborating with Network Rail and ScotRail to leverage their trackside fibre opens up a huge range of possibilities for these organizations – in terms of their own productivity and safety – as well as passenger experience and productivity. Trackside CCTV for example would deliver both safety, security and operational cost savings.
Further, and more strategically, there are huge potential benefits for the country as a whole. Currently dedicated to railway signalling and other railway-specific tasks, Network Rail Telecom’s network has enormous capacity. As well as a business case that can be justified by operational improvements (e.g. trackside CCTV for safety and inspection, for example), their trackside network has greater potential – and could deliver significant value for Scotland and the UK as a whole in the race to 5G.
I’ve blogged before on the broadband and mobile coverage challenges we have in Scotland (for example, at major tourist attractions in rural areas, and also on major trunk roads). The rural and mountainous nature of Scotland means that delivering broadband has faced real technical challenges – it’s been a significant civil engineering project. The railway network in Scotland is extensive – and extends into rural areas as well as the more heavily populated urban area. Imagine the benefit to the country as a whole, and some of the internet-challenged rural areas, if we could leverage the fibre to deliver internet connectivity via the railway fibre network.
Therefore Cisco’s pioneering work with Network Rail Telecom and ScotRail to date, coupled with upcoming network techniques such as network slicing, our work has removed real barriers and could have a transformational impact on internet delivery across the country – as well as providing a new revenue stream for the railways. And with the fibre capacity challenges outlined above threatening the rapid roll-out of 5G, the railway network across Scotland and the broader UK could be a real asset in the race to 5G.
The Next Steps
Returning to the upcoming ScotRail WiFi trial, it’s important to remember that what we are running will be a live trial. It’s real and will serve thousands of passengers on the Glasgow to Edinburgh rail line daily for the duration of the trial. It’s most definitely not a test in a controlled environment (we’ve already completed that phase of testing) – we’re testing live on the busiest rail route in Scotland. Cisco is confident of proving the technology and solution. The challenge then transfers to the transport authorities and government – are they ready to “grasp the thistle” and deliver a huge step change in connectivity across Scotland’s geographically diverse rail corridors? Or will the decision be taken to “wait for 5G”? – that is, wait for 5G to be delivered across a geographically challenged country where, as the UK government’s “Connected Future” report highlights, even 2G is not yet pervasive on our roads and railways.