A TRAIN of passengers contently browsing the internet, checking emails, and even streaming video all without disruption while travelling at high-speed is the utopian vision of an onboard Wi-Fi service for train operators.
Unfortunately this vision remains a far cry from reality.
Onboard Wi-Fi first began to emerge in 2003, and was initially a great success, offering a service that met the demands of early devices using the technology. However, in 2007 the iPhone arrived and the market for data changed forever.
Instead of being the privilege of the business elite, smartphone sales have ballooned in the past few years to the extent that almost everyone now has a data sucking device in their pocket or handbag. With Wi-Fi tending to provide a more reliable (and cheaper) service than 3G browsing, and with devices automatically connecting to Wi-Fi when it is available, it is the natural choice for those looking to stream video on YouTube, answer email, or catch up with friends on Facebook or Twitter.
However, the bandwidth capacity of onboard systems simply cannot cope with the demand for data when everyone pulls out their phone, tablet or laptop as soon as they board the train. As a result operators are offering a substandard service compared with fixed broadband connections at home or in public places, which in turn is hurting operators' public reputation.
Any Twitter search of onboard Wi-Fi brings up reams and reams of criticism, with questions over speed and availability common responses. Indeed it is estimated that 53% of tweets relating to onboard Wi-Fi are negative. Some operators have reported that it is now among their top five sources of complaint.
The BBC's flagship consumer affairs programme, Watchdog, investigated the issue on its June 4 edition, analysing the performance of the service provided by three British franchise operators: CrossCountry, East Coast and Virgin.
Its research team found that Wi-Fi was unavailable on average for 20% of the duration of the journeys on the three operators services, bringing the show's host Ms Anne Robinson to question the value of paying for such a service, and tech analyst Mr Adrian Miles to conclude that passengers are currently better off using a 3G or 4G network to access the internet than onboard Wi-Fi.
While the technique used to measure Wi-Fi service was questionable - the research team used a computer "ping" programme to analyse the strength of signal throughout the course of the journeys rather than actually using the Wi-Fi service - their findings did highlight the underlying problem.
In Britain 32% of the railway network does not have access to a 3G signal, and with railway operators relying on masts owned by third-party telecoms providers to support their Wi-Fi service, it is inevitable that in certain "black spots" not covered by these masts that the service fails. Even when it does work the system is overwhelmed by more and more passengers attempting to connect which results in poor latency and inconsistent download speeds.
East Coast's head of onboard Wi-Fi, Mr David Wilson, told BWCS' Train Communications Systems conference in London in June that it has identified 18 black spots along its route from London to Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh. He says the company is currently working to address this with its telecoms partner O2 as part of its £2.2m investment in its onboard Wi-Fi service, which was set to conclude at the end of June following approval in November 2013.
As part of its upgrade East Coast will take advantage of 4G LTE technology, which is slowly being rolled out across Britain, through new antennas fitted to its Mk 3 and Mk 4 coach fleet. Original supplier Icomera is undertaking the work, and Wilson says that by offering speeds of up to 50MB/s LTE will offer a huge improvement in performance.
Similarly East Midlands Trains (EMT), which adopted onboard Wi-Fi as a franchise obligation when it began operating the network in 2011, is also updating its technology following a drop off in quality as more and more passengers attempted to access the service. Nomad Digital is supplying the upgrade which is 4G-ready and provides a service of around 50MB/s in London where 4G is available and around 12MB/s on the line to Luton.
Mr Robert Oerton, EMT's head of customer service strategy, says that the upgrade is improving the service. However, he described EMT and other operators' situation as being akin to a hamster in a wheel.
"We can't get ahead on this so we feel we are just trying to catch up," Oerton says. "A big part of our strategy is to educate passengers so they understand what they are getting on a moving vehicle is different from what they would expect from a free Wi-Fi service in Costa Coffee. We are having a stab at it and trying to keep pace with expectations."
He added that a key part of the operator's strategy is its paid model which rather than generate revenue is intended to stifle demand for the service in order to enhance reliability. While there is a 90% uptake in first class where the service is free, there is a 10% use rate in standard class where a single journey internet session costs £4. Oerton says that the service generates around £250,000 every year but it still runs at a loss.
Via Rail Canada has employed an alternative approach to reducing usage. Preloaded video on-demand services are now available through the train's Wi-Fi portal which do not take up precious bandwidth but still allow passengers to access free high-quality content through their devices.
Mr Francois Blouin, Via Rail's director of emerging technology, says that following the adoption of a 4G LTE network in 2013, attention was shifted to prolonging its expected 19 month - two year service life. He says the early signs are encouraging: there has been a 20% fall in consumption of data since the on-demand service was launched in August 2013 and a 23% increase in average viewing times over the last four months, which could improve further as more content becomes available.
German Rail's (DB) paid model has also had the desired effect of limiting traffic enabling it to offer a high-quality service on over 200 of its ICE trains. DB is also in the advantageous position of having a close relationship with a telecoms vendor. Deutsche Telecom, or T-Mobile, has optimised its network to provide a basis for onboard Wi-Fi and is supporting DB with its 4G LTE upgrade which is expected to come online in 2016. The telecom provider says it is in its commercial interest to do this because it considers DB as a very lucrative customer.
Unfortunately the DB example appears to be the exception to the norm. In a climate of flatlining revenues and falling profits, mobile network operators (MNO) are investing in new infrastructure to keep up with the demands of new technologies and may not always consider serving railways as a priority.
Ms Anna Holness, managing partner at Telefónica UK, the sole MNO to present at the conference, defended her company's commitment by highlighting project Beacon, its joint venture initiative with rival Vodafone, which aims to develop and share 4G infrastructure to provide 98% coverage in Britain by the end of 2015. She says this will also benefit rail operators.
"It is unfair to say that we don't give a damn," Holness says. "GSM-R interference has been a major issue for us and we have worked with the railways on this. You have to remember that we don't have trackside access so we can't put our masts here. All we can do is improve what we have. Project Beacon is about working together to find an optimal solution and it shows that we are happy to have a conversation about what we can do to improve things. But we have to be clear, this will not be solved by any one MNO on its own."
It is a similar situation in the United States. Amtrak's Wi-Fi service is now in use on its inter-city routes in the Cascades, California, the Midwest, and the North East Corridor (NEC), with 16.5 million users taking part in 53 million sessions over the past four years. Again a cellular-based service is in operation, and following a 4G upgrade, customer satisfaction has improved - from 59% to 70% on NEC regional services and 54% to 66% on Acela trains.
Yet there are still problems with the latency and consistency of the service. Amtrak's data consumption has increased from 46 terabytes in 2010 to 134 terabytes in 2014 and passengers are expected to consume all available Wi-Fi capacity within 12-18 months. And while Mr Jim Baker, CEO of Xentrans and Amtrak's project manager for trackside networks, says that the 4G optimisation will help Amtrak to prolong its service, its current average download speed is 9.26MB/s, which he says "is barely broadband."
"In situations where you are able to have a partner who is building technologies specifically in the wayside to deliver service to your vehicle that is fantastic, and obviously that is what everyone would like to achieve," Baker says. "That is not possible in the US. The carriers are not interested in engaging with rail operators to build custom networks or even optimise their networks. They are too busy focusing on the bottom line and their core business which is not transport."
As a result Amtrak is undertaking a project to construct its own dedicated trackside network for the NEC which takes advantage of both fibre and wireless technologies and can offer 25MB/s per car initially which could be ramped up to over 100MB/s in the medium-term. A 19.3km proof of concept is proposed for the project, which Amtrak is funding itself, on a section of the NEC between Davis and Ragan in Delaware. Amtrak is currently inviting proposals from vendors after issuing an RFP at the end of May. The deadline for proposals is July 28.
Utilising existing infrastructure is critical to the success of this project. Baker says the federally-mandated Positive Train Control (PTC) signalling system, which must be installed wherever passenger trains operate, provides Amtrak with a significant opportunity to use fibre optic cable which already exists in the right of way, or is being installed, to serve additional wayside networks.
"This has opened up an opportunity to build trackside infrastructure in conjunction with PTC that will deliver connectivity to trains," Baker says. "Certainly on the NEC this is absolutely key to the initiative. The fibre is already there and that is worth over 80% of the cost. So it is considerably easier to go in after the fact and put in a little mast because you don't have to broadcast over a large area. We are looking for a mast that is tall enough and compact enough to go within 7.5m of the wayside, so it is near the fibre, with antennas directed up and down the track."
Baker says that ground-to-train communications using the NEC's approximately 185 PTC masts along with the smaller dedicated masts will be combined with microwave communications in areas where signal might be interrupted such as in tunnels, cuttings, and on sharp curves. He also says that Amtrak is exploring the use of a 5GHz frequency which is attractive because it can offer a wide bandwidth.
"The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently opened 5.1, 5.2GHz, for outdoor usage and we have over 100MHZ of bandwith available in the 5GHz band which is enormous," Baker says. "In terms of the throughput that is a terrific amount that you get put through to a train if you can find technology that can cope with trains going at very high-speeds, and with Doppler shift and all the other intricacies to get RF propagation to something that is moving at speeds in excess of 250km/h."
Using existing fibre and networks is not just restricted to passenger Wi-Fi services. Remote condition monitoring, security and passenger information systems could all be implemented on an IP backhaul network. Many of these applications also use negligible bandwidth which would not hinder the performance of passenger Wi-Fi.
Baker says Amtrak is very excited about the possibilities that this could offer and that it substantiates the business case for building dedicated infrastructure to support public Wi-Fi.
"No-one is going to build a network for CCTV. It's not going to happen. But as a supporting function of a much larger network, the business case all of a sudden becomes a lot stronger," Baker says. He adds that selling the benefits of the system company-wide is critical to establishing a stronger case and to carry out critical work.
"If they can see that they are going to benefit as well don't be surprised that all of a sudden it becomes a lot easier to get access to carry out your installation work," he says.
This view is shared by British infrastructure manager Network Rail (NR) which recently issued an RFP to select a carrier to support its development of a dedicated trackside mobile network which offers a minimum bandwidth of 50MB/s. While stopping short on detail, Mr Clayton Nash, NR's head of network innovation, says that a solution offering multiple functions is his preferred outcome, which would maximise the benefits to NR as well as the 27 train operating companies, and three rolling stock operating companies that make up the Rail Delivery Group.
"People will say that technical difficulties are the problem, and we're not putting that aside, but for us it is how we pay for what we are doing which is causing us the problem," Nash says. "We have to get the business case to work for everyone to make this a success."
Nash says he is hopeful of seeing something installed by 2015 and a complete solution to meet a government deadline of 2019. But he warned that the chosen solution must be capable of moving with advances in technology.
Inevitably in a fast-moving industry, installing equipment that might be obsolete in just a few years is something which operators should be wary.
Baker is certainly of the belief that depending on what vendors come up with, the Amtrak model will prove its value in the long-term. As the owner of dedicated mobile network infrastructure, it could find itself selling its own connectivity at some point in the future. While he says that this is not in the company's thinking yet, it is not ruling anything out. And at a time when railways are looking to tap into potential new revenue streams, this proposition adds further weight to any business case.