The Internet has long been an indispensable part of daily life, with people routinely used to being reachable anywhere and working on the move. With the imminent arrival of 5G, Wi-Fi in subways and trains has become more relevant than ever, so I sat down with Joe Mullin, Chief Technical Officer of InSite Wireless, to discuss the biggest challenges and developments around bringing a reliable, uniform data connection to a whole rail network.
The second largest private wireless infrastructure company in the US, InSite has over 2000 sites and locations, including towers, land, and antenna systems. Over the past two decades, the company has branched into the rail sector and worked with major subway operators in LA, Atlanta, and their hometown of Boston.
“From the rail transport perspective, we started relatively early, distributing antenna systems on underground subway systems,” explains Joe. “The Boston MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) subway was the first one we did, in 2005. The MBTA had tried previously with two different teams to get the work done, and both failed – the cost had come in so high that nobody wanted to pay for it."
Due to the size of tunnels and the maintenance hostile environment, companies were having significant trouble establishing a reliable, endurable Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS). After the failure of previous projects, InSite was awarded the right to design, build, operate, and maintain a neutral host DAS to deliver coverage to station platforms, walkways, and on trains travelling between stations.
“We were brought in and were able to do it, working on it from 2005 until 2013. Today we have 145 underground stations and more than 21 miles of track covered," says Joe. "The four major US wireless carriers – Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint – are all in the system, and we have our local Comcast operating wi-fi on the station’s platforms.”
Due to success of the Boston project, InSite started expanding to other areas of the continental United States, providing DAs installations to Atlanta's MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) and Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. According to Joe, there's a single common challenge between all of those projects: time.
"There's always a lot of work to be done between ourselves and the transit agency, to make sure we’re line with their expectations and providing them the documentation they need, getting approvals, etc," Joe explains. "In fact, no matter where we go, the biggest challenge is getting on the tracks to perform the installation. The systems that we were on ran pretty much 20 hours a day, more or less, so there’s a lot of competition to get on track to get work done -- getting that priority on scheduling to get it done is always a challenge. It’s understandable from their part, but in order to get the job done, we need the time on the tracks.
"There’s so much congestion in LA that the populace is embracing public transit, so there’s a lot of subway construction going on -- when working with LA Metro, we were involved in the early planning of the subway lines, so we're able to go in to do our installation before it starts operating," he continues. "We've been working on the Crenshaw line, the Regional Connector Transit Corridor, and three Purple line extensions, and it has been good -- it’s a night and day difference being able to go in there without having to worry about the resume of service or other people’s schedules."
Come back on Friday for the second part of the interview, where we discuss the increased data requirements of the modern world, the challenges brought by an evermore taxed infrastructure, and the 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.