Faster than a speeding bullet

UK rail travellers have been promised improved Wi-Fi services on trains, but Paul Carr, managing director of industrial connectors specialist Electroustic, believes there are significant obstacles to overcome first

Faster than a speeding bullet

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.

Patchy signal
Currently, the wireless service available on trains is supported by a 3G signal from base stations. A train’s onboard Wi-Fi system receives this signal and transmits it to the portable devices used by passengers. However, the main problem with the current network is that signal is often patchy.

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 the 25 train operating companies currently provide Wi-Fi on trains, often with limited speed and signal. 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.
The USA, for example, has already entered the next stage of Wi-Fi and uses a 4G network that can host public 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.

Long-term collaboration
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.

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.

The author... Paul Carr is MD of Electroustic, a specialist distributor of industrial connectors, leads and electromechanical components to UK industrial sectors

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