Why Wait for 5G? The Challenges of Railway Connectivity – Solved – Today (Part 1)
This year’s UK budget day (23rd November 2017) has been an interesting day for technology. Technology plans were central topics – including a significant government 5G investment. As my Cisco UK colleague Matt Houlihan blogged earlier, Cisco is already working with Government to ensure that as a country, we have the best foundations in place in terms of digital technical capability and infrastructure. One such area is rail connectivity. In this part 1, I’ll cover the challenges of rail connectivity and Cisco’s Connected Train solution – and in part 2 in the next week or so I’ll talk about the implications for 5G and the UK.
The Challenges of Rail Connectivity
Service providers can have some real challenges delivering connectivity to trains. Trains are fast moving metal objects – essentially Faraday cages travelling at speeds of 100 mph (and beyond). Delivering internet connectivity – especially on a crowded rush-hour trains – will significantly exceed people density in a typical office. Consumption of data could be significant – especially as workers look to be productive on rail journeys, participating in conference calls and even video conferences. Railway tunnels and cuttings, tree foliage, rail lines in sparsely populated rural areas and other factors add to the train connectivity challenge, as the following diagram illustrates.
Regardless of the technology, then, 3G, 4G, 5G … these remain key challenges for rail connectivity and must be solved for 5G to be a success. And as I’ll describe in this blog, Cisco is solving these today – well in advance of any 5G technologies being rolled out.
The UK Government View
The UK National Infrastructure Commission’s “Connected Future” report (December 2016) is an excellent read on this topic. Some of the key points in this report include:
- “Mobile coverage on our rail routes is notoriously poor; making it difficult to carry out tasks taken for granted in many other contexts, such as making a phone call or checking emails”
- “Roads, railways and city centres must be made 5G ready as quickly as possible”
- “The railway network must rapidly improve connectivity. This will be best delivered in future by a trackside network”
- “The RAC foundation found that c. 4,600 miles of British roads have no 2G mobile phone coverage from any network provider” [a challenged I noted in a previous blog regarding one of Scotland’s major trunk roads]
- “Around 40 per cent of railways are in tunnels or cuttings, causing base station signals to be blocked. These difficult geographies mean that even with near-ubiquitous geographic coverage MNOs would be unlikely to provide sufficient coverage and capacity to deliver a quality service to passengers without trackside infrastructure”
- “The mobile market provides few incentives for MNOs to invest in improving rail coverage”
- “Ultimately, the government should ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place on the main rail and key commuter routes by 2025 at the latest if it wants to offer a reasonable level of connectivity on a timescale consistent with the deployment of 5G networks.”
Forgive me, maybe I’m a cynic – but this adds to what I fear is call a growing mythology that (1) 5G will be required to deliver a good rail passenger connected experience, and that (2) 2025 seems to be the timeframe when we can solve this in the UK. Let me apply Cisco’s “No Technology Religion” philosophy and demonstrate that THIS NEED NOT BE THE CASE!
The World’s Fastest Train WiFi – Coming Soon to Trains in Scotland
Back in September, I was lucky enough to be in the Rail North of the Border conference audience when Cisco UK and Ireland CEO Scott Gardner announced the upcoming trial of the world’s fastest train WiFi in Scotland.
We’ve evolved our solution from the original “Project SWIFT” – Superfast WiFi In-carriage for Future Travel – and adapted for the challenges of the ScotRail network. Starting early in 2018 this trial will go live on the Glasgow – Edinburgh (via Falkirk) rail line and, by leveraging a new trackside infrastructure, will deliver an average of 300 Mbps WiFi onto the ScotRail train (and a little birdie tells me they are already seeing up to 600 Mbps in early trials). Well before the “Connected Future” report was published, Cisco – as the world leader in networking – had concluded that trackside infrastructure was the optimal approach to deliver super-fast train connectivity. This delivers the opportunity – in 2018 and not in 2025 – to deliver a high quality connectivity experience to the rail corridor – not only for passengers but also for ScotRail and Network Rail productivity benefits. As well as passenger entertainment, we expect this high quality WiFi experience will be used for work purposes – delivering a productivity increase to Scotland plc – as well as other benefits that I will cover in part 2 of this blog.
Please then, take some time to view the video below, which describes the passenger experience improvement way better than I can in a short blog:
I’ll wrap here for this part 1 – in part 2, I look forward to telling you more about the challenges Cisco overcame to deliver this solution now – and how we envisage our work, driven by our experts in Cisco UK and my colleagues in Cisco Services, can accelerate the adoption of 5G in Scotland, the UK and beyond. I’ll also talk about the uniquely collaborative environment in Scotland – with Network Rail Scotland, ScotRail, the train operating company (and also Scottish Government groups on 5G planning) – that’s enabled us to deliver this world first in Scotland. And let’s see if Scotland can “grasp the thistle” and deliver super-fast WiFi across the rail network.
PS: Part 2 of this blog is now available here.