~ The future of super fast Wi-fi on UK trains ~

Did you know that one of the technologies you use on a daily basis was invented by an international beauty icon? During World War II, Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr and co-inventor George Anthiel, developed what they called a “secret communications system,” which allowed users to change radio frequencies in a pre-programmed pattern. The 1941 patent grew up to become today’s wireless technology.

Paul Carr

Here, Paul Carr, managing director of industrial connectors specialist Electroustic, analyses the future of wireless communication in the rail industry.

In the last couple of years, the hype around Wi-fi services in public places, including on trains and buses, has intensified significantly. The high demand for fast and reliable wireless is finally becoming a key priority for the private and public sector alike. As a result, the UK Government has recently made an announcement promising to improve Wi-fi connectivity on trains in the next five years. The project goes as far as guaranteeing a tenfold increase in the current service speed.

In a nutshell, travellers have been promised a £90m upgrade across the English and Welsh railway system, aimed at creating a free, fast and universal service. The project will be partly funded by a £53.1m fine to be paid by National Rail after failing to achieve its punctuality targets over the last five years. The first lucky passengers to benefit from the upgrades planned for the next three to four years are the ones travelling on routes into London, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield.

Currently, the wireless service available on trains is supported by a 3G signal from Base Transceiver Stations (BTS), also called “phone masts” or “base stations”. A train’s onboard Wi-fi system receives this signal and transmits it to the portable devices used by passengers, such as laptops, tablets or smart phones. As any avid train traveller knows, the main problem with the current network is that signal is often patchy, especially in rural areas, or in the proximity of tunnels and embankments.

In an attempt to improve the infrastructure and, implicitly, the service offered to passengers, Network Rail is installing its own transmitters along railway lines, with the purpose of getting the entire network connected and improving overall signal strength. The Government’s most recent initiative should complement existing projects by upgrading receivers and Wi-fi hubs on the trains themselves, making it easier to pick up the 3G signal and distribute it via the onboard Wi-fi system.

According to National Rail, only nine of 25 train operating companies currently provide Wi-fi on trains, often with limited speed and signal.

Train Series

Some operators limit each vehicle to only 2.5 megabit per second (Mbit/s), which has to be shared among passengers. This means that video streaming services, downloads and highly demanding applications are often blocked. An increase in speed and bandwidth would open up a whole new world of possibilities for entertainment and work-related applications of Wi-fi on trains.

The initiative has been presented in a very positive light, but failed to mention that there are significant obstacles for a mass implementation of super fast Wi-fi on trains. Security issues, the complexity of the sector and lack of infrastructure are only some of the hurdles that the UK needs to overcome to remain competitive in wireless access.

One of the key steps before initiating a mass implementation is to turn our gaze towards countries that have already done it and analyse the difficulties they are currently facing. The US, for example, has already entered the next stage of Wi-fi and uses a 4G network on the Long Term Evolution (LTE) platform that can host safety critical communications and enhance passenger service. The UK needs to create a centralised strategy and focus its efforts on building a sustainable, smart infrastructure that can stand the test of time.

Sweden also updated its onboard Wi-fi a few years ago. Scandinavian rail operators are currently finding that the popularity of the service among passengers and the increasing demand for “heavy-duty” Wi-fi applications are already putting strains on the existing infrastructure.

To ensure the sustainability of super fast Wi-fi on trains, thorough research needs to be conducted and a long-term collaboration between the Government, train operators, telecommunications, maintenance and equipment providers is paramount to improve infrastructure and access, and ensure the UK remains competitive in the wireless connectivity arena.

Electroustic believes industry collaboration is essential to ensure quality Wi-fi is implemented on a large scale in the transport sector. Infrastructure has to be reliable and robust to offer a fast and secure service. This will result in both increased customer experience and enhanced railway operations. Super fast Wi-fi can be used for management of onboard services, like catering, as well as technical functions, such as train diagnostics, live streaming or onboard CCTV systems, thus improving overall customer service.

Hirschmann's Open BAT

Electroustic supplies Hirschmann and Lumberg Automation connectors for communication on trains – including industrial WLAN, UIC cables, WTV and MVB data bus cables – video surveillance, information systems, signalling technology and traffic control, emergency telephones, safety lighting and control room applications.

The spread spectrum technology that Hedy Lamarr helped invent was patented in the 40s, but only implemented decades later on naval ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The pace of innovation is significantly faster nowadays, which is why choosing the right technology and implementation of super fast Wi-fi on trains is crucial for ensuring the UK remains on the cutting-edge of wireless technology.

Electroustic would like to create a coalition between a group of companies, united in the same objective, to promote open Wi-fi on trains, advise transport providers on implementation and make information publically available for interested parties. Companies who would like to be involved should contact amy@electroustic.co.uk.