Under pressure: tackling railway connectivity in 2016 (downloadable guide)

Railway connectivityWireless connectivity on trains is set to become a key area of focus for the wireless industry over the coming years. On-board connectivity remains a significant technical challenge; providing connectivity to people within a fast-moving object that often encounters mobile blackspots is inherently difficult. However, pressure is rising from governments and passengers to improve the current levels of wireless service available on trains.

Currently, enhanced on-board wireless solutions face two major barriers. The first is how to enable cellular connectivity. The second is how to secure sufficient capacity for on-train usage and the necessary backhaul where on-train Wi-Fi is installed. While the technologies are available today to solve these challenges, the business case for moving connectivity along remains largely elusive.

rail-connectivityNow though we are seeing some interesting moves in the market that may help to break the commercial deadlock we have seen in recent years. In particular governments around the world are now attempting to ease some of the pressure by investing in connectivity for trains. The UK government is investing £50m to ensure passengers benefit from free Wi-Fi by 2017. The state government of Victoria, Australia, has committed $40m to tackle mobile coverage blackspots across the region’s Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Seymour and Traralgon lines.

Although these developments are welcome, ultimately the ‘right’ solution needs to work for train operators, mobile network operators and rail passengers alike. All industry stakeholders now need to work together to produce business cases that can benefit every party involved.

At this time of shifting market dynamics Real Wireless has put together a short guide assessing the current situation with regards to wireless on trains along with our independent expert recommendations for ensuring connectivity remains on track.

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.

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.

Competition: the consumer’s friend?

For a relatively small country with 60 million inhabitants, the UK has four (or six, depending on how you count shared networks) operators competing for subscribers.

Add MVNOs in equation and the contrast between the UK and others – like the US – become readily apparent.

The immediate impact of this is good news for consumers. The options on offer mean UK operators need to prioritise low prices to stand out; in fact average revenue per user in the UK can be as low as a third of that in the US.

However the long-term consequences of this could well be hindering the UK – something that is often forgotten about when discussing how the market will develop.

Low pricing for consumers results in lower profitability for operators, which in turn means a lack of investment in infrastructure. This is compounded by the fact that constructing multiple networks results in an inefficient duplication of resources, which could otherwise be used to increase network coverage, capacity and performance.

So whilst we are a small country with a high population density, coverage continues to be a real challenge. Despite being nearly 40 times the size of the UK, the United States generally enjoys far more complete coverage.

Whilst consumers therefore see low pricing as beneficial and advantageous, in the long run they ultimately receive less ‘bang for their buck’.

With profit margins shrinking in a pricing race-to-the-bottom, operators are facing hard times. It’s not hard to see these figures leading to internal pressure for consolidation – which would in turn have a negative impact on competition.

Innovation too is hampered. After all, with multiple competitors watching your every move in an attempt to capitalise on any mistakes, can we blame any operator that doesn’t want to experiment with a non-proven technology?

One would hope that this situation would ultimately self-regulate, with operators folding in times of excessive competition and springing up when potential revenue is attractive enough, but the high stakes that are currently involved in entering or leaving the market make this unlikely.

But recent EC merger decisions suggest that we are beginning to see proactive steps taken towards resolving this. Rather than obsessing over operator numbers, the focus has shifted towards policing their behaviour at the wholesale level. The thought process being that this will encourage MVNOs to compete more intensely in retailing mobile services, whilst increasing efficiency in the underlying networks and allowing network operators to reap the financial benefits from greater economies of scale.

What is implicit in this is an increased recognition of the benefits that resource sharing can bring. However, I would argue that the EC regulators will need to start thinking about more the sharing of more than just networks.

By encouraging spectrum sharing we can begin to enable access to the wide channel bandwidths, that are likely to be necessary to meet future demand for mobile broadband, and avoid exacerbating the issues surrounding spectrum scarcity we may encounter in the future – something that Sweden, France and Mexico have already begun considering.

Slovenia’s 4G auction sets example for rural broadband

As the Slovenian regulator announce the results of its 4G spectrum auction, there are lessons for the rest of Europe in how we deliver broadband  - both mobile and fixed – to remote communities. 

http://www.akos-rs.si/public-tender-with-a-public-auction-for-assigning-radio-frequencies-for-the-provision-of-public-communication-services-successfully-concluded

Real Wireless worked with the Slovenian regulator AKOS  to help judge the impact that coverage obligations would have on the auction. From our experience working with Ofcom on the UK auctions, we were able to advise on how the potential costs would vary depending upon a number of factors, including the specifics of the Slovenian population distribution and geography, the current situation of existing operators and the capabilities of the network technologies involved. 

Part of the EU’s Digital Agenda sees countries aiming to provide broadband at up to 30Mbps to citizens by 2020 – an ambitious target and one made particularly challenging by the cost of fixed-line service provision to remote communities. 

http://ec.europa.eu/digital-agenda/en/scoreboard

An integral condition of the auction was that one operator would be obliged to provide rural mobile broadband coverage to a high proportion of the population. Building on this, we found there was an opportunity to further reach specific remote communities who are currently missing out on fixed broadband services via in-home wireless gateways, at little incremental cost. As a country where a number of communities are based in radio-unfriendly, mountainous environments, using small cells to provide 4G coverage was an ideal alternative to expensive fibre. 

While other countries such as Germany have seen the potential for enhancing rural services via a mobile broadband coverage obligation, the explicit linkage between specific underserved communities in this project for Slovenia bodes well for joined-up fixed and mobile policies in other nations.

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