Saturday, October 07, 2023

Train connectivity - is passenger Wi-Fi too linked to rail portals' needs?

This post originally appeared on Oct 5 on my LinkedIn feed, which is now my main platform for both short posts and longer-form articles. It can be found here, along with the comment stream. Please follow / connect to me on LinkedIn, to receive regular updates (about 1-3 / week)

It's always interesting to attend non-telecom industry events. Too often, we breathe our own smoke. Visiting another sector's conferences gives better perspective. Often, networks are less important than we imagine for "verticals".

Yesterday I chaired the Connectivity stream of the World Passenger Festival conference in Vienna, an event primarily for the rail industry, plus other forms of transport mobility. The speakers in my breakout covered Wi-Fi access onboard trains and at stations, plus how to manage video traffic. 5G was covered for on-train network backhaul, neutral-host provision and possible use-cases like AR-enabled tourism & urban mobility V2X safety for buses and bikes.

The rest of the conference and show floor was about passenger experiences more generally. Ticketing, sleeper trains, coordination with other types of transport, train-based tourism and so on. Plenty of talk about apps and "transformation" more broadly, but the network wasn't a priority.

There was also a rather muddled main-stage keynote on #5G by Accenture, with 2018-era references to millisecond latencies, network slicing and autonomous vehicles. It conflated normal MNO 5G with the long-promised critical-comms rail variant #FRMCS and bizarrely suggested they would coexist on converged, virtualised networks. A later chat on their booth with a more knowledgeable colleague gave a lot more clarity & agreement on the realities & drivers of operational connectivity for future rail - especially enabling ECTS (European Train Control System) for higher capacity on rail networks.

The rail industry is at the apex of a trend I discussed in a recent newsletter article and post - the need for customers to have reliable access to smartphone apps for ticketing, journey-planning, at-seat entertainment and catering etc. Travellers need to download passes, make payments and use QR codes.

This explains why so much of the on-train #WiFi strategy is linked to apps and portals, and much less to general wireless infrastructure, whether MNO or dedicated trackside/FRMCS.

Some rail Wi-Fi teams view cellular as a cost (for backhaul) or a rival that stops passengers seeing the portal and info/monetisation offers, when they directly access the Internet from phones. They filter or cache video use to reduce cost and congestion. One even tries to dissuade passengers from using cellular, to save 4G/5G network capacity for the train!

In my view, there is both too much "joined-up" thinking and too little. It's either 5G maximalism ("we don't need Wi-Fi on trains") or it directly links connectivity to the rail operator's own priorities, rather than passengers' real Internet access needs and expectations.

What is needed is integration in the right places and layers. Shared trackside masts and fibre, plus hybrid connectivity to trains from public 5G, trackside dedicated networks (including #private5G) and satellite, delivering good, neutral, fast on-train Wi-Fi AND cellular for passengers.


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