There’s a lot of work to do to get acceptable connectivity on trains…

Cmglee_London_Kings_Cross_platform_6Everyone on trains has, at one point, suffered from poor connectivity on their phone, tablet or laptop when working while commuting, trying to access social media or catching up on the day’s news.

Poor on-board connectivity has become a fact of life at the moment, and consumers are becoming increasingly agitated at their inability to receive the same quality of connectivity on trains as they do at home. Nor is this frustration without justification; if the population could receive reliable connectivity onboard trains, it would likely create value for not only passengers and train operators, but the wider economy as well.

It’s therefore no surprise that the government has been vocal on this topic, calling for consumers to be able to receive a similar level of mobile voice and data access on trains as they do in urban areas — irrespective of service provider. The government has attached a specific target to this demand — Wi-Fi on 90% of journeys by 2018 — but, when you consider that just 62% of British rail routes currently have mobile coverage let alone Wi-Fi, you can see there’s still a long way to go.

What many consumers are unaware of when they complain is the sheer expense and complexity of providing reliable connectivity on trains, something we’ve blogged about before on this site.

What’s the industry doing about it?

I recently chaired the inaugural Gigabit Train event at techUK to discuss the technical and commercial challenges of providing wireless connectivity to trains by 2020. At the event were a number of rail wireless providers, including Nomad Digital and Fluidmesh; a satellite provider, Hispasat; the Department of Transport; and Ofcom.

I wrote an article for techUK on my first set of impressions from the workshop: that the technology required for wireless on the railways is starting to get better. However, I wanted to take the opportunity to follow up by considering another issue highlighted in the discussions; the amount of investment necessary to get mobile connectivity to an acceptable standard.

The crux of this problem is that the industry still needs to establish a business case for on-board connectivity. Without one, there is no commercial incentive for train companies to improve standards beyond their current level, especially when many train companies see Wi-Fi as a drain on resources.

A few years ago Real Wireless examined how such a business case could be constructed, for the RSSB. Our report found that, done correctly and efficiently, there’s actually a very clear opportunity to build such a business case — though it must look beyond Wi-Fi to mobile connectivity as a whole. The business case would need to encompass how to:

  • Get advertisers on board and set expectations for ad revenue based on the length of passenger journeys
  • Extend the benefits of connectivity to train companies themselves — as well as their customers — so they can make day-to-day train operations more efficient
  • Introduce new services and applications with a potential ‘killer’ app to improve the passenger experience — because relying on big data isn’t sufficient

With enough of a common view of the viable value propositions of these components the industry can tackle the next significant hurdle: achieving economies of scale by getting stakeholders to agree on a scalable solution and revenue model — something that will prove particularly difficult in the UK’s franchised rail network.

How to make progress? There is no doubt that the rail companies are a significant stakeholder; as part of their digital strategy they should drive the initiative and lead on establishing value chains that point to a sustainable business case. But the mobile operators also have an important role to play, establishing backhaul that is capable of supporting this solution.

Mobile coverage in rural areas – a step in the wrong direction?

Mobile_Phone_Mast_at_Two_Burrows_-_geograph.org.uk_-_272976The UK currently has around 54,403 mobile phone masts dotted around the country — many of which are on land leased to the major telecoms companies by local landowners.

4,000 leases are due to expire this year, and this could lead to serious consequences for  telecoms companies and consumers alike. In the absence of any regulation, lease renewal negotiations could lead to significant demands from landlords for rent increases in a large number of cases. Telecoms companies will then need to either pass on this cost to the consumer, through more expensive tariffs, or remove macrocells completely and create coverage or capacity gaps. The Telegraph recently wrote an article on this topic.

Macrocells are still vital to mobile coverage

Despite advances in small cell technology and Wi-Fi calling, macrocells remain the backbone of the mobile network, delivering the majority of the UK’s coverage and capacity.

There’s no alternative to macrocells, either, that doesn’t involve some form of relationship with a property or asset owner. In-building connectivity solutions like small cells and DAS do improve coverage and capacity in homes, offices and public buildings, but they will never replace macrocells entirely and do not provide wide area coverage in towns and around the countryside.

Operators need to protect their investment

Vital infrastructure is often expensive to provide and macrocells are no different. Operators naturally want to keep hold of their existing assets, given they’ve invested heavily in constructing macrocells in the first place.

Operators and landowners both know the difficulties with finding alternative sites for macrocells and obtaining planning permission and the time and cost associated with doing this would be significant — whilst the operators could resort to invoking code powers this is not a step that would be taken likely but it cannot be discounted completely as an idle threat.

How rent rises will affect mobile provision

The first impact of rent rises is likely to be felt by users in those locations where high costs force MNOs to remove macrocells, resulting in coverage or capacity gaps. Site closures aren’t going to happen overnight, though. MNOs will fight to keep their sites at rental levels that are either at or below the current level. But if landowners insist on increasing site rent by excessive amounts then users will no doubt have to bear the brunt of the costs through higher tariffs. Most likely the operators will pass some costs onto the users and absorb the majority but this will lead to less investment in new infrastructure in their networks and invariably lead to a negative impact on the digital economy generally.

Can the government intervene ?

The story of land rentals is an old chestnut in the mobile industry. The cycle of site acquisition, rental renewals and notices to quit will carry on as long the mobile industry exists — unless the government  is prepared to intervene to help regulate the rental levels that MNO’s pay for this essential infrastructure. At the same time, MNO’s need to realise that landlords and building owners should not have their genuine development plans for their land or property undermined by MNO macrocells that may have been on there for many years.

The reliance the British public currently places on their mobile communications and, within a few years, the reliance that the Police and other emergency services will have on their vital communications being carried by mobile networks suggests that this particular debate should be opened up and that representatives from the various parties (MNO’s Property owners and Government) can create a solid and sustainable basis that will help maintain mobile communications services throughout the UK.

Calculating the future: UK spectrum usage and demand

Today saw the launch of the first in a series of reports on UK Spectrum Usage and Demand from the UK Spectrum Policy Forum, at an event in London.

UK Spectrum Usage and Demand considers the spectrum needs of different sectors, and the social and economic contributions which they are able to make based on their spectrum usage. It reflects the contradictory priorities different industries hold – including space, utilities, business radio, meteorology and mobile – with a view to fostering open discussion and mutual understanding, in order to deliver maximum benefit from the UK’s spectrum assets.

For the report, Real Wireless was commissioned to provide a snapshot of current spectrum usage for the report, as well as calculating the expected long-term future needs of the major users of spectrum in the UK.

Last year Real Wireless became a funding partner and Steering Board member for the fledgling Spectrum Policy Forum. I act as voluntary chair of the Forum’s Cluster 1, examining spectrum applications and demand.

The reason for this is simple. Spectrum is a scarce resource, one that needs proper management and support if the country is to enjoy the benefits – a recent estimate valued spectrum as contributing £52 Billion per year to the UK economy. The UK Spectrum Strategy published a year ago set a target to double this contribution by 2025. Therefore, an independent, industry-led government sounding board such as the UK Spectrum Policy Forum is crucial to making the most of this asset – and Real Wireless is proud to support this vital work.

In today’s report, we found that there are multiple industries with conflicting spectrum requirements and only careful forward planning and a high level of mutual understanding will avoid future clashes.

After all, these industries rightly consider their work as important, and Real Wireless has long been an advocate for enabling the use of wireless technologies in a way which bridges the gap between the wireless industry and business, personal and public sector usage of wireless.

What’s crucial therefore is to plan ahead and spot conflicts before they occur, taking all needs into account in future policy debates to maximise the social and economic benefits from spectrum in the long-term.

A later edition of the report will include further sectors and lead the way to the specific work items which will allow progress on these areas – watch this space!

Today’s report from Real Wireless and the UK Spectrum Policy Forum, UK Spectrum Usage and Demand, is available to download here.

Will we really have Wi-Fi on trains by 2017?

Prime Minister David Cameron announced today that all trains in the UK should have free WiFi from 2017, partly helped by £50M of government funding.

At Prime Minister’s Questions he said the plans would cover services operated by TSGN, Southeastern, Chiltern and Arriva Trains Wales. (It isn’t clear if it is only those will get the funding, or if it is only those that have the expectation of free service?)

1Di8seNRo6bK8c9xq5Cw_Italia FerrisBut another facet is that is likely this will be a prerequisite of tender submissions: TOCs will have to offer Wi-Fi as part of the criteria for in the next round of franchise submissions – and will need to compete on the level of service they offer.

It is clear the operators see the benefits: Wi-Fi is a great way to make train travel more productive and hence more attractive than driving.

A spokesman for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents Network Rail and train operators, said: “It is good news that even more rail passengers will be able to benefit from Wi-Fi on their train. Rail plays a crucial role in keeping people connected to friends, family and jobs and the wider rollout of Wi-Fi on the rail network will mean people can make even better use of their time on the train.”

But saying people should do it is the easy bit: actually making this work is extremely challenging, and this is an area where Real Wireless has done a lot of work.

Trains are an extremely challenging environment for on-board connectivity, whether via Wi-Fi or small cells. For a start, there are very strict safety standards, which complicates installations. But most challenging is the issue of backhaul: trains move fast, though difficult terrain (tunnels, cuttings) and often through remote areas. To get that connection to work reliably is not trivial, and might need specialist links or dedicated spectrum.

That makes it critical that there is appropriately designed trackside network, on-train equipment and spectrum.

We have worked on these issues for a number of clients, and have some in-depth expertise in this area.

An example, which is in public domain, was done with Mott MacDonald for the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), that considered both Spectrum and Technology: “Supporting the Rail Industry’s Wireless Communications”.

We analysed spectrum (the characteristics of different frequency bands, the status of regulatory policy) and technology (capabilities that would be suitable to both operational and passenger services, and both Wi-Fi and LTE).

We have done a number of other projects on train communications and how to make them work, reliably and cost-effectively.

A few things to consider:

  • It may seem surprising, but one of our findings was that it is not actually as expensive as often thought to install mobile equipment on all the carriages of all the trains in the country – if it’s done in a coordinated fashion.
  • What’s more, that the cost is massively outweighed by savings in necessary trackside infrastructure, given the right use of technology and spectrum. But too many people are not doing that right.
  • There are significant benefits from operational use: looking only at passenger use omits many of the opportunities for telemetry, maintenance and other in-house savings.
  • If you are looking at WiF-i, you should consider cellular service at the same time. Including a small cell to improve cellular connectivity is a small incremental cost but has a major benefit for passengers in serving all devices with both voice and data services.
  • People need to anticipate the future and plan ahead. These solutions need to be robust with the right technology, capacity and QoS to support the number of travellers using the service – especially as passenger numbers rise by 2017.

For some more details please contact us, or see our white paper “The business opportunities for wireless in transport” explains how network operators can invest in infrastructure to support better connectivity and new business opportunities on trains and other modes.

 

 

Real Wireless and Tech4i2 to evaluate licence-exempt equipment across Europe

Real Wireless and Tech4i2 are undertaking a study for the European Commission, to assess the extent and range of licence-exempt equipment being sold and used in the EU between now and 2030. The study will be used to help the European Commission in its goal of making available sufficient licence-exempt spectrum, harmonised at EU level, for future wireless innovation.

Concluding in September 2015, the study will enable a clearer understanding of the use of harmonised frequency bands by different categories of radio equipment in Europe, essential information for planning current and future spectrum requirements and managing congestion. It will also examine how the condition of such equipment differs between Europe and other regions.

This report follows previous work by the European Commission in constructing an inventory of equipment operating in licensed spectrum.

The analysis will cover the full range of license-exempt equipment: from Wi-Fi to garage door openers, baby monitors, and even key fobs. It will both consider whether the use of such equipment fits into existing spectrum without excessive congestion, and identify new bands where positive action could be taken to stimulate currently dormant – but potentially valuable – markets.

“The European Commission is keen to promote the shared use of radio spectrum resources, in order to foster innovation in new and existing markets,” said Professor Simon Saunders, Director of Technology at Real Wireless. “Real Wireless brings extensive expertise in both assessing the current landscape, and providing a detailed forecast of future spectrum requirements that can be used by regulators and businesses across Europe.”

“This will be an important study for how the European Commission examines harmonised spectrum, and could impact a significant number of current and future markets,” said Professor Paul Foley, Director at Tech4i2. “At a workshop in Brussels on 10th March 2015 we will be presenting an overview of the project to interested stakeholders. As part of this, we will be seeking responses from attendees to our initial research, which will highlight current capacity, as well as potential radio equipment and spectrum requirements to 2030.  To find out more see the project’s LinkedIn group here.

The results of the Real Wireless and Tech4i2 study will support the implementation of the Article 9 “Inventory” of the Radio Spectrum Policy Programme (RSPP), developing a reliable approximation approach for assessing the medium and long-term spectrum usage densities in harmonised licence-exempt bands.   It will also compare devices and spectrum policies for licence-exempt spectrum in Europe and the US as input to discussions on achieving greater trans-Atlantic scale economies for radio equipment in the context of Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

The UK needs to address rural coverage – but national roaming isn’t the answer

This week has seen the UK government bring back proposals for national roaming, the idea being that those in remote villages and towns should be able to jump onto rival networks if their current provider isn’t delivering. It’s certainly an admirable initiative and one worthy of discussion – but national roaming isn’t the answer.

There has been plenty of discussion today on the pros and cons of this approach, with The Register doing a particularly good job of summarising the key reasons why this policy is well intentioned but not well thought through.

So rather than going over the same ground, we wanted to look at other potential, viable solutions to the problem.

LTE is coming

As part of the 4G licence award, Telefónica O2 has an obligation to provide “a mobile broadband service for indoor reception to at least 98% of the UK population and at least 95% of the population of each of the UK nations… by the end of 2017 at the latest.” And, perhaps encouraged by this obligation, all the operators have committed to meeting this target by the end of 2015. So much will change in the next year without further government intervention.

While LTE has been in big cities for a while now, it’s yet to reach much of the countryside or the smaller towns. But it’s on the way.

Real Wireless completed a project for the Scottish Government where we looked specifically at rural coverage and people will be genuinely surprised by just how good LTE coverage is.

We found that providing 95% of the population with indoor coverage, growing to 98% with gradual enhancements, is not beyond the reach of operators to achieve by the end of 2015. This is a huge improvement over 2G coverage, which even today only currently averages around 85% indoors. We also found that the average indoor mobile data speed available across Scotland will increase from about 2.5Mbps in 2012 to approximately 36Mbps by 2023.

The 4G roll-outs will reach 95% of the population surprisingly quickly, and there are ways to accelerate the rollout to 98%. However, it’s the final 2% that presents the most difficult challenge – but nor is this something national roaming would solve.

Rural coverage is expensive

Building networks is expensive, yet the UK already has amongst the lowest mobile infrastructure investment per head – something we touched on in a previous blog here. This is a real problem and one that puts us behind the rest of the world.

Technology has developed so that operators no longer need to invest in coverage over a wide area, to get service where users need it most – indoors. Vodafone’s open sure signal initiative is a good example of how this can work.

Targeted coverage makes it much more cost effective for operators to deploy sites and also avoids many of the planning challenges that can slow up installations. It’s this sort of technology that needs to be considered when addressing that final 2% figure, rather than expecting a blanket coverage approach. Such technology also provides operators with a way to continue to compete on coverage even as the share more of their wider networks, which is surely in the interest of consumers.

No easy answers

Rural coverage isn’t easy and the challenge has always been balancing the cost of network investment with the potential return. However with the wider rollout of LTE and the development of much cheaper, targeted ways of delivering coverage, there are viable solutions that need to be considered. It’s these approaches that need to be looked at by Government and operators in parallel, rather than pushing ahead with an approach that, while well intentioned, has some significant flaws.   Government needs to be aware of the risks of unintended consequences – just one example is the potential impact on national security flagged by police chiefs and the Home Secretary.

Real Wireless joins UK Spectrum Policy Forum as funding partner

Wireless experts’ contribution reflects the importance of spectrum policy to the UK economy and telecoms industry 

Real Wireless has joined the UK Spectrum Policy Forum as a funding partner. Acting as a sounding board for the Government and Ofcom, The Forum is at the centre of UK Spectrum Policy and closely aligned with the work Real Wireless carries out for many of its clients.

Professor Simon Saunders, Real Wireless co-founder and Director of Technology, has been working with the Forum since its inception last year, where he examines spectrum applications and demand as chair of Cluster 1.

Launched in September 2013 by Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, the UK Spectrum Policy Forum is chaired by Professor Jim Norton. With the involvement of a full range of spectrum-using companies and organisations, the UK Spectrum Policy Forum is the industry sounding board to the Government and Ofcom on future spectrum management and regulatory policy, with a view to maximising the benefits of spectrum in the UK.

“Spectrum is a scarce resource but it’s also one that is valued at £52 Billion per year to the UK economy. Therefore it’s an area that needs to be properly managed and supported,” said Prof. Saunders. “The work of the Spectrum Policy Forum is essential if the UK is to get the most of this valuable asset and it’s an initiative that Real Wireless is perfectly placed to support.”

“Simon’s work with us over the last nine months has been invaluable and we’re delighted that Real Wireless has now become a funding partner of the Forum through Steering Board membership,” said Professor Jim Norton, Chair of the UK Spectrum Policy Forum. “Real Wireless has an incredible wealth of expertise and experience in spectrum policy and management and this makes them an excellent partner.”