"I believe the Internet of Things is the greatest opportunity the rail industry has had in several decades to significantly improve the passenger experience."
Today we speak to Stellan Ohrn, President, Icomera US Inc, the Swedish based provider of cellular broadband gateways delivering Internet connectivity for passenger transport and public safety applications. Their award-winning products are deployed on rail, road and sea, serving millions of Wi-Fi users every week across the globe and providing high-speed access for fleet tracking and mission-critical on-board systems. We catch-up with Stellan at an interesting time for Icomera having just opened a US office and talk passenger demands, the interconnected world, industry changes and the Internet of Things…
Luke Upton (LU): Hello Stellan, it’s a busy time for you at the moment so thanks for the time. Icomera launched the world’s first high-speed Internet solution for trains in September 2002 but for our readers who are unfamiliar with the company, and as means of an introduction, could you tell me a little more about your work within our industry?
Stellan Ohrn (SO): Hi Luke, no problem at all. When people hear the words “Internet solution for trains”, a great many of them will not think of anything beyond passenger Wi-Fi and while that is a service we provide and comprehensively support, it is only one of the ways in which we are contributing to the development of a truly 21st century rail industry.
It has become apparent to the more progressive rail operators we work with that having installed numerous onboard Internet devices on their trains in recent years, they are now faced with an increasing need for a multifunctional hardware and connectivity platform. Icomera offers a complete connectivity solution for these devices, a platform they can integrate with so that operators can remotely monitor and react to a train’s location, its CCTV feed, passenger loading, engine performance, energy consumption and so on.
This same platform can also support the services that improve the passenger experience, beyond basic web browsing – things like streaming locally stored infotainment content to their smartphones, tablets, or laptops, and enabling them to use these same personal devices to place an order from the catering cart without ever having to leave their seat.
LU: Icomera has recently opened an office in the US focusing on the North American region, what’s brought the company across the Atlantic?
SO: We’ve been active in the States for a number of years now, working with local partners to support the business needs of both road and rail operators like VTA and Greyhound, and our Head of Innovation, Mats Karlsson, has served on a number of PTC advisory boards in recent years, regularly speaking on the subject at events here.
But yes, we have recently opened an office, in the DFW (Dallas Ft. Worth) Metroplex, because we felt that now was the right time to establish a stronger local presence, to bring our unrivalled expertise more directly to the North American region, opening up new segments. We want to continue to live up to, and even exceed this region’s service expectations. Having a base of operations here locally will help us achieve that goal.
LU: On-board access has quickly gone from a ‘nice addition’ to an ‘essential’ for many, where does the technology head next?
SO: This is something that Mats Karlsson will speak about when we attend SmartRail USA in October - the next generation of vehicle Internet connectivity where we aim to work with operators to create truly end-to-end passenger journeys. We’ll do this by continuing to optimize the performance of our solutions, making use of the latest developments in mobile telecommunication technology. For example, we have strong working relationships with leading telecommunications academics and work with them to advise train manufactures on antenna designs, which in turn allows our customers, the operators, to take advantage of advances in technology at the earliest opportunity.
A 250 Mbps connection to a train is already possible in countries with good LTE. Gbps data connections to trains will be possible within the next couple of years with the improvements in LTE-Advanced.
LU: With Icomera now working across Europe and America, what are some of the differences and similarities you can see?
SO: We’re living in an interconnected world were distances have almost been eliminated by the Internet era. Standards and practices may differ from region to region but in general there are more similarities than differences.
On a practical level, variations in how governments in different countries chose to allocate their radio frequency spectrum mean that we have to adapt to different frequency bands, all the way from the baseband unit to a proper antenna install, in order to ensure that we get maximum performance out of our unique in-vehicle X6 router (see image below). It still amazes me when operators have committed to spending all this money on the on-board equipment, and then try to take short-cuts with the RF antenna installation. They are trying to save costs but in reality they risk abating the benefits from the original upgrade from 3G to 4G. We make sure that our customers get the best advice here. Ours!
We have also seen a lot of different products in both regions claiming they can bond different links to provide an “unbeatable” connection, but believe me when I say that it requires years of development experience and expertise to deliver this competently.Icomera have been developing, extending and improving on this technology since 1999 and we’re truly the worldwide market leader in this space.
LU: On a personal note, you’ve got over twenty years’ experience within the wireless telecommunications industry, at times the industry must be almost unrecognizable from the start of your time working in it? What have you seen as the biggest change?
SO: I can point out a couple of trends that are also accelerating the need to reduce the time to market for new product offerings and forcing us to think differently about service offerings (not just hardware): Mobile, Big Data, Internet of Things, Software defined networking, and APIs.
On the Mobile front Europe was definitely leading the way with the adoption of GSM/GPRS (2-2.5G) back in the eighties. More recently in the US, because of the fierce competition between two giant CSPs, they’ve been forced to be very innovative and take risks adopting new technologies such as LTE, LTE-Advanced, and Voice over LTE on a large scale much faster than anywhere else in the world, except for maybe a few countries in Asia like South Korea and Japan.
Even with the higher available bandwidth, end-users are eating up as much data as CSPs can provide. Smart phones and the whole app eco-system is accelerating the demand. Look at your kids, they’re inpatient if content doesn’t download right away or if their smart device doesn’t work while being mobile. We all want faster speeds, everywhere, and at a lower cost.
The next major shift is the Internet of Things - sensors with mobile connectivity placed in products you couldn’t have imagined just a few years back. With all these sensors collecting vast amounts of data in real-time, seamless and reliable connections are going to be vital in order for analytics tools to make sense of it all and this an area that Icomera is already able to support.
LU: Interesting you mention ‘Internet of Things’, clearly a big buzz word at the moment and a concept already familiar to those working with trains. With all this data, just how ‘smart’ can trains get?
SO: I believe the Internet of Things is the greatest opportunity the rail industry has had in several decades to significantly improve the passenger experience.
As I mentioned before, we’re aiming to work with operators to create truly end-to-end passenger journeys. The passenger experience starts long before they board the train, even before they buy their ticket. In fact, the passenger experience begins the moment the idea of traveling by rail enters their head. At this point, the operators who are fully utilizing the Internet of Things can support their passenger’s travel choice at step one.
Perhaps a “smart” journey planning app could advise the passenger on the fastest route to the station, adjusting for traffic and using this information, along with live updates on how early or late the train is running, to suggest the exact time they should set off from home.
Maybe it could go further and use live passenger loading data to advise them, where appropriate, to catch a slightly later train - if getting a seat is more important to them than getting to their destination at a set time.
That’s just step one of the passenger’s journey. Think how much of a difference we can make to the complete passenger experience by implementing similarly innovative improvements at every step. It’s exciting.
LU: Thanks very much Stellan, looking forward to hearing more as the company grows and meeting the team in Charlotte in October.
Icomera are the Networking Sponsor and Stellan’s colleague, Mats Karlsson an expert speaker along with over 75 industry leaders, including representatives of over 40 transit and rail agencies at SmartRail USA Congress & Expo in Charlotte, NC, 29-30th October 2014 Building on a 3 year track record, the SmartRail 2014 exhibition is a unique business platform for leading providers of transit IT, telecom, communications and station technology. For more on Icomera and how they can develop solutions for you click here.