Many rural dwellers may feel that improving the accessibility to next generation superfast broadband services to homes and businesses is more important than looking into broadband on trains. But with the trend in franchised rail route passenger miles increasing, and more than 50 per cent of weekday passengers travelling on business*, there can be few more important environments for reliable, fast broadband to be available than on our rail network.
Although the first train-based broadband systems were available to ECML customers as early as December 2003, many routes still don’t offer any kind of dependable, defined broadband service. Virgin Trains does seem committed to providing on-board wireless broadband on the majority of its journeys but services don’t offer any defined service level and are relatively expensive except for First Class passengers who get offered them for free.
Anyone who has tried to do work on a long rail journey where consistent, reliable internet access is important will know how frustratingly slow, flaky and unpredictable the data and internet services provided by the mobile phone networks are.
The meteoric rise in cloud-based computing means that if commuters and business travellers want to be able to work effectively when travelling by train fast broadband is pretty much essential. Passengers travelling purely for pleasure or tourism are also more likely to opt for the (often more expensive) rail option as a means of transport if they know they can access the internet during the trip.
So with broadband access and its importance so high on the agenda of the paying passenger, why aren’t train operating companies doing more to improve broadband provisions on their services? The answer is, like the fixed line broadband speed challenges that face many consumers and small businesses, a complex one.
The challenge of connecting a wireless network to a moving thing
Up until now, the availability of technologies which facilitate an economically viable, consistent broadband on trains has been sparse. While there is consistency and uniformity in the standards adopted by most wireless broadband hardware manufacturers, the physical challenges of providing integrated equipment that will interconnect with different rolling stock and provide a stable service are immense.
However the biggest hurdle is the same one faced by every broadband company or service provider whether land based or mobile – the physical backhauling of the local service, in this case a moving train, to the main backbone of the internet. In simple terms, providing a wireless network on a train is one thing, but connecting the wireless network to a constant, fast internet service as the train moves about the country is another.
The whole reason that train-based systems are needed is because the mobile phone data network is so patchy and fickle. Despite all their publicity for 4G, the major mobile networks like Vodafone and O2 are in fact reducing the number of cell sites across the UK, not increasing them. Many cellular sites aren’t equipped to give even 2G data, meaning that while in some locations you might be able to make and received calls or text messages, accessing email or browsing simply isn’t possible. This is because of the lack of availability of local fibre infrastructure to connect the cellular sites to the internet. The bottom line is that there isn’t a viable business case for the wired infrastructure companies like BT Openreach to dig and lay fibre to vast parts of the UK. There isn’t much government money available to help, and what there is, is often wasted on schemes that don’t actually deliver broadband to remote users.
Unlimited resource above the earth
So what is the answer? One option is to look towards the skies and take advantage of a well-developed but not well-known technology — satellite broadband. Many people don’t realise there’s a virtually unlimited broadband resource stationary above the earth, some 22,000 miles out. Communications satellites send and receive broadband traffic from remote moving and static equipment from all parts of the globe and bounce it to a location on the earth where very fast core connections to the internet exist.
The military and broadcasters have been using satellite communications for years, but recent advances in technology mean smaller, lighter equipment, much faster speeds and considerably lower costs. Recent releases of previously unavailable spectrum by Ofcom particularly favourable to satellite broadband on trains, boats and planes have given rise to new services and hardware being developed for this market.
Vital to understand customer’s broadband needs
Another obstacle that always comes up in the broadband debate is that of cost. Train operators struggle to come to grips with the fact that many consumers view broadband as a commodity that should be abundant, even unlimited, and that they have a right to it for free. Surveys show
that the public accept that someone has to pay for services like broadband, but they feel that it shouldn’t be them. Many commuters feel that broadband is a vital part of the journey, and that the train operator should be delivering it reliably, much like light and heat, at whatever stage they are in their journey.
In 2013 36 million adults in the UK (73 per cent of the population) accessed the internet every day. This is some 20 million more than in 2006, when comparable records first began. Increases in the use and ownership of highly portable tablet computers and smart phones means that consumers expect to be able to connect to broadband wherever they are. If they are benefiting from a service such as public transport and no broadband exists, this leads to immediate dissatisfaction in their minds. It’s vital therefore for train operators and the rail industry to understand customers’ broadband needs if passenger numbers are going to continue to grow.
*Source HM Government Department of Transport
Andrew Walwyn is CEO of Bigblu, Europe’s only independent satellite broadband provider. bigblu.co.uk