This is part 2 of a three-part interview. Click here to read part 1, where we discuss InSite's work at Boston's MBTA, Atlanta's MARTA, and LA Metro's subway systems.
Ahead of SmartTransit LA, I sat down for an extremely enjoyable talk with Joe Mullin, Chief Technical Officer of InSite Wireless in Boston. After talking about their past projects in the rail industry, I ask Joe about the current state of tech, and how the constant advances, innovations, and hardware leaps affect InSite's operations. To my surprise, he tells me the unflinching pace of progress brings more problems than solutions.
"Our job actually gets harder rather than easier. What we’re seeing -- and it isn’t just in the transit environment, but across the industry -- is that ever since the advent of the smartphone as we know it back in 2007, there’s been an incredible increase in the demand for data, quarter over quarter, year after year," he says. "It is constantly upwards-sloping the curve for usage; people started out with emailing and browsing the web, and now the normal thing is uploading and downloading pictures and videos -- the demand for data is astronomical, and it is continuing to rise."
That surge in network usage requires a robust backbone, able to not only relay the vast amounts of data, but also route the signals of multiple devices in a small area. Due to the way technology progresses in leaps and the transportation industry very much does not, service providers must plan the next step before their initial installation is even completed.
Back in the early 90s. the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) chose Verizon -- a single carrier -- to provide the cellphone system for the entire DC Metro. The company deployed a 1G/2G network that was unable to keep up with the necessary capacity expansion, and WMATA had to rely on multiple wireless providers -- whom according to Joe, "even though they have their own agenda and want to get things done, cooperation is not their strong suit" -- to get the Metro network system to cope with the extra demand.
"You need to increase the amount of downlink power and quality uplink, and that network in DC was never built for 3G or 4G and outlived its usefulness. The MBTA (Boston) has been our longest established system, and when we rolled it out, we were basically (for all practical purposes) in a 2G world; 3G existed, but there wasn’t a lot of market penetration -- it was all voice and text," explains Joe. "With the launch of the smartphone and 3G/4G and the subsequent increase in demand, we’ve been consistently upgrading the infrastructure in the subway."
"A lot of it has been additional frequency bands," he continues. "We only had two frequency bands when we started -- 850 and 900, here in the US -- and then shortly thereafter AWS came out, which was 1700 and 2100.
We’ve been adding frequency bands and going towards the higher-level, more sensitive technologies with more sensitive modulation schemes for the higher data throughput -- a much more demanding specification, but we’ve been very successful in upgrading throughout that whole process, and we continue to do it today."
It isn't all about internet speed, though. As mobiles, tablets, and laptops became cheaper to the point of ubiquity, infrastructure suddenly saw itself besieged by thousands of devices at once. Antennas were unable to handle the amount of devices in one spot, and as higher protocols increased speed and reduced coverage, a process called sectorization was kicked into overdrive.
"We’re adding additional sectors today due to the increased usage demand. We originally added about twelve sectors to the subway in Boston, and we’re in the process of more than doubling that now to 28 sectors. We’re slicing and dicing the system to put more capacity into it," Joe says. "When we launched in LA and Atlanta, however, we had the benefit of hindsight -- we did so with a higher sector count and capability because we’re anticipating the growth, so we can go ahead and increase sectorization as needed."
Come back next week for the third and final part of the interview, where we discuss telecomms saturation and the security concerns of subway installations, alongside ways one can address and profit from them.
If you're interested in learning more about telecomms in rail and meet other brilliant speakers and companies like Joe Mullin and inSite Wireless, book your ticket now and join us at SmartTransit LA, on October 28-30th.