"5G offers the potential for the capture and analysis of far more data. What you do with this data can offer huge upsides in running your network. As an industry, we are all very interested in the idea of optimising data capture, analysis and use cases. This is where 5G can intersect with IoT, and finally offer the potential to maximise the potential of IoT within the transit environment."
Today, we are talking with Paul Chan, the Managing Director of BAI Communications in Hong Kong. Paul has spent over 30 years working in the transit communications sector, working on all sides of the industry and playing an active role in the development of technology, all the way from 2G back in the 1990s through to preparing for 5G on upcoming projects.
In a rapidly evolving communications landscape, Paul is well placed to take us through the journey from 2G to a future involving a 5G powered Internet of Things (IoT). In this exclusive interview, we look at how lessons from previous projects can help to optimise future technology, and the role that Paul and his colleagues at BAI Communications are playing in advancing the industry.
Can you start by telling us a bit more about who you are and the career path that has led you to your current role at BAI Communications?
I started my career as an engineer in 1985. Having spent the first five years in government, I then began working for HK Telecom, managing radio communications projects predominantly in the transit sector. Having built up my experience and connections, in 1997 I moved over to Radio Frequency Engineering Ltd -- the predecessor to BAI Communications here in Hong Kong. My first role as Engineering Director involved working on building out radio communications systems across large scale infrastructure projects. A large proportion of this work was for MTR (Mass Transit Railway) in Hong Kong, but we also covered airports, tunnels, convention centres, shopping centres, really any major infrastructure that required high levels of connectivity for the public, operational safety or maintenance.
The first major project for the MTR involved deploying a 2G system covering 34 stations and tunnels. This included the deployment of both mobile phone systems for passengers and public safety systems for operations staff -- from drivers to maintenance staff -- and for public safety staff such as the police and fire service. This was all connected through to new control centres. That has been the bulk of my work since, working on these two streams (passenger systems and operational safety systems) and finding innovative ways to optimise systems and technology to stay ahead of the curve. I’ve seen the evolution from 2G to 3G 10 years later, and recently I’ve been working on 4G -- and we’re now future proofing transit systems for upcoming 5G deployments.
We spoke to you last year about how Hong Kong has led the way in transit connectivity. What have you been working on in the last 12 months to stay ahead of the curve?
I’d like to talk about the Shatin-Central Link, the newest MTR extension, that is currently under construction. It will be comprised of 10 stations and tunnels, and the first eight stations will be in operation this year, in 2019. Phase 2 will see the addition of two more stations and tunnels and is planned to be in operation by 2021. Our role has been to work with HK Telecom and Huawei to build the mobile phone system, and with the MTR to build the operation and public safety radio network.
HK Telecom engaged Huawei to use their equipment to provide a 4G system, with the capacity to easily upgrade to 5G when required -- 5G licences are not yet issued in Hong Kong, but the migration path for 5G spectrum and technology is clear. 5G is coming soon, so it is vital that we prepare the network for further technological development; the active antennas and the equipment all have the necessary fibre backbone that can easily handle future upgrades to 5G when the exact frequencies and technology are confirmed. This will allow for a time saving and cost-efficient upgrade when the time comes.
You’ve been involved with the transit industry since the early days. What are your top tips for transit operators on how to avoid costly mistakes and to future proof their communications infrastructure?
The biggest time and cost element of any communications project is the deployment of the cable infrastructure backbone. This can only be done at night outside of operational hours, and therefore there is a very high cost and long lead time to complete it -- you need to start with good planning and efficient and safe methodology.
It’s also important to learn from previous projects and have a clear vision. If you factor in any extra costs now to put infrastructure in place that is capable of handling upgrades, then ultimately you will save a lot of time, cost, and disruption in the future when upgrades are required. When that happens, it is just a case of making some upgrades to technology in the equipment room and the terminal equipment, which is far easier to be replaced than infrastructure. In such a case, existing infrastructure can be retained for a longer period, offering greater value for money and less network disruption throughout the system life cycle.
Passengers in Hong Kong are now accustomed to high levels of connectivity. What lessons have you learned about aligning operational demands and passenger expectations?
It all starts with a robust systems safety design and build process. It is important to make sure that the delivery of new communications infrastructure will not cause any hazards or safety issues, for both operational staff as well as the passengers. This is the main foundation.
If you work with the highest levels of compliance across everything from emissions, right through to potential interference with existing systems (such as compatibility with the radio-based signalling systems), then you are laying the foundations for success. Good planning and future proofing on an operational safety level gives you a rock-solid base on which to build out additional functionality for passengers.
Based on past experiences, what do you see as the big trends over the coming years -- and what is BAI Communications currently working on to address those?
I already mentioned the impending arrival of 5G, and this is something that everyone in the industry is working on. However, it is not just about providing higher capacity -- 5G also offers the potential to add more sensors and connected devices into your transit network for the capture and analysis of significantly more sensor data. What you do with this information can offer huge potential upsides in running your network.
At BAI Communications, we are very interested in the potential for more sensors and connected devices and use cases. This is where we see 5G intersecting with IoT, and finally offering the potential to maximise the potential of IoT within the transit environment. We have a special task force with engineers from our offices in Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, the USA, and Hong Kong working together to share experiences and develop proof of concept applications combining 5G and IoT for the transit sector.
There are a wide range of possibilities for that. Applications that we are looking at range from environmental, safety, and customer experience. 5G offers a far higher potential for IoT with much higher capacity and lower latency. We see exciting times ahead, as it opens the door to so many more possibilities to optimise networks -- both for passengers and operators, and for public safety.Finally, a question we ask all of our interviewees: what is your favourite rail journey and why?
Throughout my career, I’ve travelled to many countries and experienced a great range of rail and metro journeys. My personal favourite journey was on the high-speed rail route from Hong Kong to mainland China on the Express Rail Link completed last year. On a personal level, I was so impressed with the speed, comfort, cleanliness, and passenger service, as well as the quiet and efficient operation of this new line and its trains.
On a professional level, it was also impressive to experience BAI Communications technology working so effectively and delivering on the promise of excellent connectivity. The Express Rail Link has 26km of tunnels, and yet there is continuous 3G/4G coverage throughout. So this journey wins for me, as I can appreciate it both as a passenger, and as someone that has worked in the transit communications space for over 30 years. It’s great to see how far we’ve come, and I’m excited about what the future holds!
BAI Communications is a platinum sponsor of SmartTransit 2019, taking place in Los Angeles from 28-30th of October. To meet them and many other industry experts and decision makers, make sure to join us at SmartTransit LA on October 28-30th.