Connectivity Why Are Mobile Connections Aboard Trains So Poor?
While trains in the UK are sufficiently modern, and service employs innovations like smart ticketing, passengers suffer from mobile connectivity performance that’s generally second-rate. For service suppliers, numerous upgrades must be carried out in order to deliver improved quality connections to consumers within a reasonable timeframe.
In 2016, Britain’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) delivered the Connected Future study to the UK government laying out recommendations for delivering mobile connectivity to the nation’s citizens. The UK government endorsed the recommendations that appeared in the report and made progress on delivering 4G coverage and an early rollout of 5G technology.
But as of 2019, the NIC’s Annual Monitoring Report made clear the government had failed to deliver two of the seven recommendations in the original study. While the government has made admirable headway in supplying connectivity on its extensive road network, the country’s rail system has not been given equal or adequate consideration, and progress in this sector appears to have become bogged down. The government needs to take swift action to deliver improved connectivity on the nation’s rail network, securing the quality of life and economic benefit that’s attendant with this modern necessity.
Recommendations from the 2016 Connected Future
The NIC’s 2016 overall recommendation for railways—endorsed by the UK government—was as follows: “Rail passengers should have high-capacity wireless connectivity. This should be achieved through a delivery model that utilizes trackside infrastructure to provide an open and accessible mobile telecommunication and backhaul network that’s fit for the future.”
The recommendation made clear that necessary infrastructure needed to be in place along key commuter and main line routes no later than 2025 if railways were to offer reasonable levels of connectivity on a timeframe consistent with deployment of 5G networks.
Progress so far
Since 2016, a range of private and public initiatives have improved (or stand to improve) rail mobile connectivity. These include:
- 5G technology trials on South Western Railway
- A connectivity procurement proposed by the UK’s rail infrastructure maintenance company, Network Rail, on the Brighton Main Line
- A plan by London North Eastern Railway to improve mobile coverage on its East Coast Main Line
- Tests of new technology at the Rail Innovation Development Center, run by Network Rail
- Trials on London’s Jubilee Line as part of Transport for London’s work on mobile connectivity for the London Underground
But despite the above plans and tests, overall progress on mobile connectivity for the UK’s rail network has been quite limited. In fact, after a series of consultations, most work appears to have stopped.
One example of this is the Trans Pennine Initiative (TPI), a joint project between the Building Digital UK (BDUK) Local Full Fiber Networks (LFFN) and the 5G Testbeds and Trials (5GTT) program. The passenger connectivity component of the TPI was deemed to be too expensive and was canceled; further efforts on it have been deprioritized. No overall plan seems to exist for advancing rail connectivity, and without additional effort to resolve this issue, better coverage for rail passengers cannot progress.
Defining problem areas
Commercial and institutional barriers appear to be responsible for much lack of progress regarding rail connectivity in the UK.
The problems are not technical in nature—technological solutions exist for delivering mobile connectivity to railways via trackside infrastructure. Such solutions have been successfully deployed on intercity rail routes in countries including China, Germany, and Italy, as well as on urban metro systems, such as those in Hong Kong, New York, and Moscow.
These examples have often been accompanied by public subsidies and have been overseen by a single organization managing trains, tracks, and trackside assets. While such organizations may make it easier to coordinate deliveries of trackside infrastructure, the strengths of this arrangement can be difficult to determine.
NIC has specified four areas the UK government needs to improve progress in:
- direction and leadership
- accessing trackside land
- commercial obstacles
- completing evidence gaps
In order to address these four areas, the following actions need to be taken so that direction can be provided to the UK government in the next 12 months. Progress will be tracked in the NIC’s Annual Monitoring Report for 2021.
Direction and leadership
A large contributing factor to the lack of progress in rail connectivity has been the absence of strong, strategic leadership. The complexities that need to be dealt with largely stem from railway institutions and infrastructure, rather than factors in the telecommunications sector.
In 2017 after the release of the Connected Future report, momentum was building within the UK government to upgrade railway mobile connectivity. Unfortunately, ministerial changes have degraded progress; this work has been deprioritized, and resources have been allocated to other efforts. Responsibility for the upgrades fell between the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS), and this divided responsibility appears to have hindered ambitions.
There’s now an opportunity for the UK government to offer better direction and clearer strategic leadership. Identifiable barriers to improved railway mobile connectivity appear to come from commercial and institutional factors specific to rail.
Clarifying ministerial leadership and ownership by the DfT would allow improved addressing of these challenges. Before the publication of the government’s National Infrastructure Strategy, a single ministerial lead in the DfT should be chosen.
Since 2016, both private and public initiatives have been undertaken to improve rail mobile connectivity. Individually, these initiatives are very welcome, and they should be continued. But there seems to be no clear overall strategy, and it’s still uncertain how they can combine to improve connectivity across all main rail lines.
A greater leadership responsibility for the DfT would mean development of a coherent program and a timeline for the improvement of rail connectivity, making sure that both private and public future initiatives are well-aimed. The DfT should impose outcome-based standards for the delivery of mobile connectivity. Such standards don’t necessarily need to dictate specific technical solutions but should ensure that different solutions can work together to offer consistent mobile connectivity experiences for all rail passengers.
Accessing trackside land
The NIC has regularly heard from stakeholders in the private and public spheres that unimpeded access to trackside land has been a significant barrier to progress.
In the UK, Network Rail owns trackside infrastructure and serves as the gatekeeper for access to trackside land. Access to this land has to be managed carefully in order to balance the needs of different players and ensure the safety of railway users.
Currently, however, stakeholders regularly report that processes for accessing trackside land are opaque, complex, and resource-intensive. This has been a major barrier to connectivity improvement work being undertaken by third parties. The NIC is aware that Network Rail knows about the need for improved clarity in these processes and will seek to address these shortcomings as part of the latter organization’s “Open for Business” program.
As the Connected Future study noted, it’s likely that building trackside infrastructure (including fiber and masts) will be the best way to deliver a high-capacity and continuous mobile connection. However, expenses of building this infrastructure and any potential risks in doing so can translate to significant commercial barriers that could inhibit progress.
The NIC is aware that up-to-date cost estimates for delivering rail mobile connectivity may be significantly higher than estimates given in the Connected Future study. While train operating companies, independent infrastructure providers, mobile network operators, passengers, or Network Rail could all potentially provide funding, discussions held with stakeholders suggest that, in reality, none of these groups are able or willing to profitably or independently pay the whole cost of installing trackside infrastructure.
In this case, one option that may exist is to split costs via a “neutral host” concept. In this concept, independent infrastructure providers build, own, finance, and bear the risk for trackside infrastructure. Connectivity providers (like mobile network operators) pay to access such infrastructure, sharing masts and not bearing the initial cost for the installation of such infrastructure. Infrastructure sharing can be seen elsewhere in mobile markets and forms the basis for Shared Rural Networks (SRN).
Even with shared costs, however, there’s still a risk that connectivity providers may not want to pay enough in infrastructure access fees for operations to be profitable for a neutral host party. Probably, only certain rail routes—or merely sections of them—will be commercially appealing. Commercial appeal will be determined by factors like frequency of rail services and passenger numbers.
In order to improve coverage of non-commercially appealing sections of track, it’s likely that any parties aiming to provide trackside infrastructure would look for public subsidies. Where this might be necessary, third-party providers will need to have strong enough commercial incentives to motivate mobile network operators (plus other users) to pay for network access.
Despite these risks and challenges, the number of ongoing trials and the NIC’s engagement with a variety of stakeholders signal that there’s still market interest in investing in and providing rail passenger connectivity.
The UK government hasn’t yet offered the opportunity of providing rail mobile connectivity to the marketplace, outside of limited trials. The NIC believes that competitive approaches would allow third-party providers a chance to present cost-effective and innovative approaches for delivering upgraded mobile connectivity to main line routes, or even sections of routes. Operating competitive processes will allow for long-overdue coverage improvements, while limiting public subsidies to just the places they’re required. This is consistent with the NIC’s recommendations.
Chances are, there will be a range of commercial and technical models available to deliver rail passenger connectivity, including public and private hybrid funding approaches. Such competitive processes need to be based on the outcome-based standards set forth by the government, as outlined above. On certain routes, it’s possible that such competitive processes could be in the form of reverse auctions, with potential suppliers all bidding for a minimum subsidy.
Such approaches could be informed by current active trials ongoing across the UK and the lessons learned from TPI passenger connectivity trials—where market interest was driving up costs, in addition to the funding and terms offered by the government.
Completing evidence gaps
Better information about existing levels of coverage will make targeting railway improvements and tracking progress easier for policymakers. Recently published signal quality and strength data from the UK telecommunications regulatory Office of Communications (Ofcom) has provided the first public information in this area. It’s likely to foment consumer interest in the issues involved with mobile connectivity for rail networks. While this is a step in the right direction, it shouldn’t by any means be considered a “one-off.”
In summary, the NIC has identified five steps that need to be taken to ensure that basic mobile services will be adequate by 2025 at the latest:
1. The UK’s DfT must establish a single ministerial lead for improving mobile service on railways.
2. The DfT needs to publish a clear program with standards and a timeframe for delivering connectivity to main line routes, while addressing commercial and institutional barriers identified by the NIC. This program needs to incorporate planned trials and must be published by December 2020 to support future competitive processes.
3. The DfT needs to instruct Network Rail to allow access to third-party suppliers so they can deliver trackside connectivity networks on railway land. This should include access to necessary trackside facilities so such parties can utilize planned railway possessions. All these arrangements need to be published by December 2020, so they’re ready for future competitive processes.
4. The UK government needs to announce plans for a competitive-process approach to tackling mobile connectivity improvements on particular main-line routes (and sections of routes). Such competitive processes need to draw on lessons learned from ongoing trials being conducted on network routes across the nation. Competitive processes for at least four main routes should start by June 2021 at the latest.
5. Ofcom needs to report every two years on the quality and extent of mobile coverage for the UK’s railways and ensure that progress is being made. Data from these reports need to clearly disaggregate different varieties of coverage, including 5G.