Free Wi-Fi today is seen by the public as something of an entitlement when out of the home, rather than a fringe benefit or something that must be paid for. Whatever the location – be it café or hotel, leisure centre or library – there are few places where that familiar Wi-Fi fan motive isn’t on display. Making data free and available is also being made possible when out and about, too, with wireless hot spots laid on by mobile phone providers and local authorities across the world – in Dubai, the authorities there have installed solar-powered palm-tree Wi-Fi transmitters with range of 100 metres.
The world’s train operators are also under pressure to provide the free internet that the public now demands, and it’s fair to say that – with so much infrastructure required to get it off the ground – some have succeeded more than others. Here, SmartRail World takes a look at a recent history of a handful of rail networks in Asia and Europe to see how they’re getting on with providing their customers with wireless connections, not just travel connections.
In November 2018, shortly after opening arguably the most impressive part of the high-speed Guangzhou–Shenzhen line that links its mainland with Hong Kong, China announced its intention to build internet connectivity futureproofed for 5G. The roll out of the network, which represents the former British territory’s all-fibre mobile network, was carried out by the Chinese technology conglomerate, Huawei, for the 17-kilometre extension that connects West Kowloon.
Built into the new system is a capability that means it can handle both 4G and 5G, a functionality that will prove invaluable when the full-scale introduction of 5G takes place over the coming years. That robustness would have been welcome in 2012, when some Shenzen Metro services reportedly ground to a halt for minutes at a time owing to interference from the train control’s 2.4-gigahertz wireless band – the same band used by many consumer electronics.
Like many of the world’s train stations, and an increasing number of lines themselves, Japan offers free Wi-Fi to customers looking to lessen the reliance on their talk plans. The Land of the Rising Sun will soon open up wireless internet to passengers travelling on the Tokaido Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Osaka to the south of the island, with the next section that continues to Fukoka in the west likely to follow suit.
Before that comes into force, there is another type of technology that enables the travelling public to stay connected: a pocket-sized Wi-Fi router that can handle 3G, 4G, WiMAX and LTE speeds. Though unsuitable for subterranean metro journeys or anywhere where a wireless signal can’t be established, the method is popular owing to the wide range of options available that ensures customers only for what they need.
Still working under the plan it introduced in November 2017, the UK government has set its targets on improving the current state of wireless connectivity on-board trains by 2025. By that year it’s hoped that passengers will be able to rely on internet connections that allow many hundreds of devices to stream video simultaneously. That will require a major overhaul of the current infrastructure that would take the form of trackside equipment providing stable, reliable connections that would see an end to the familiar problem of internet cutting out when entering tunnels or remote parts of the country.
No timeline has been released for the stage introduction of faster internet, however testing began last year in the north of England in conjunction with Network Rail, the manager of much of the UK’s rail infrastructure, to develop trackside systems – part of a £1 billion investment to improve the UK’s digital capabilities.
Kazakhstan and Russia
Located in a key area between Russia and China that provides a gateway to Western Europe, Kazakhstan has a huge freight rail industry that ships many millions of tonnes of goods every year. However, it is the passenger network that has on this occasion broken new ground, with a wireless internet infrastructure that other operators in the region can’t yet match. The vast Central Asian country has already installed lineside equipment that the UK itself is aspiring to, working with a broadband provider to provide users with a signal that is impervious to blackouts in tunnels.
Neighbours Russia have offered fast, tunnel-safe internet since the early 2010s with a digital offering developed by Radwin and MaximaTelecom. Reportedly allowing Muscovite commuters to benefit from 90 Mbps Wi-Fi across the city’s 12 lines and 180 stations, the Moscow Metro supports more than one terabyte for each line. Not just providing passengers with internet, the system also supports thousands of systems for CCTV, passenger information and communications-based train control (CTBC).
The internet behemoth Google lent its significant resources to India in June 2018 to improve the country’s underdeveloped passenger Wi-Fi network. Starting small, the California-based company has now equipped 400 stations with a free Wi-Fi allowance, allowing the many millions whom can’t rely on a connection at home to use their local train station instead. Since 2015 it has accrued more than eight million unique users, consuming an average of 450 megabytes for each 30-minute session.
In related news, the Indian government embarked upon an ambitious plan to equip 8,500 of its rail stations with Wi-Fi. The £80 million initiative, known as the Digital India plan, aims to fit out the first 600 by the end of March 2019, with the remaining 7,900 rolled 12 months later. A Ministry of Rail spokesperson said that it was no longer an option to allow the present situation to continue – “internet access has now become an important requirement in day-to-day working”.
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