This is part 3 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, and click here to read part 2, where we talk about the evolution of 1G to 5G and the impact it has on infrastructure.
Ahead of SmartTransit LA next October, I sat down for an extremely informative talk with Joe Mullin, Chief Technical Officer of InSite Wireless in Boston. After talking about their past projects in the rail industry and the evolution of 1G to 5G, Joe told me about how his extensive work on transit occasionally left the purely consumer experience focused side and veered into slightly more important aspects of the sector.
"Our focus is primarily on the commercial side, as far as commercial wireless and the mobile operators go -- that’s where we initially come from, but we get involved with public safety in some of our projects," Joe says. "There were some issues we can address, such as when a train caught on fire in 2015 in a radio dead spot in the New York tunnels. The two-way radio wasn't working and there was no cellular coverage, so it was a really bad situation that draws attention both to the public safety need and to how wireless can act as a backup to the two-way radios."
Given the underground nature of most metro networks, coverage becomes the most important aspect of a network -- and the associated costs one of the main points of contention.
"We don’t really have issues with saturation of airwaves in deep tunnels -- the tunnels tend to be narrow single track tubes, so we’re using cables to cover their length. The bigger challenge is providing a contiguous signal, and for that we need to find the equipment location -- places to install the hardware like fibres and the amplifiers that generate the signal and power them," explains Joe.
"That can be expensive, and what we see overall in the industry is that the marginal cost for network operations for the wireless operators is increasing faster than the marginal revenue they’re getting for their service," Joe continues. "While carriers are seeing increasing costs to deliver increasing amounts of data and experiencing relatively flat revenue, we are expecting that 5G will bring efficiencies and new use cases that reverse that trend. All of our DAS networks are 5G ready on existing frequencies. We also expect that carriers will be driven by competition to keep aggressively building out their networks through additions to existing macro sites (as well as a strong need for additional macro sites) especially in suburban and rural areas, expanding on 4G technologies until 5G begins to take hold several years out."
Those worries apply not only to subway installations, but also those above the ground. 80% of all cellular usage is done from in-buildings, and as standards rise to higher data rates and the more sophisticated protocols that go into higher frequency bands, signals lose building penetration. According to Joe, "it’s much harder for carriers to budget for that, and it's an awful lot of demands for coverage that cannot really be met."
However, not all hesitations are solely money based. In New York City, the challenge has less to do with infrastructure, and more with security concerns.
"We’re eager to go anywhere that makes sense, including wanting to be involved with the discussions in London. We were involved with the discussions in NY, and there was a strong desire from them to not cover the tunnels," Joe explains. "They don’t have the same issue as London and other places have with tunnel width -- they get multiple tracks side by side in some areas, which is a really complicated system and makes it a major high-cost investment to get it done. New York has stations covered but not the tunnels, so there’s a need and a challenge there to get that done, but they were concerned with terrorists putting a bomb on the trains and setting it off with a cell phone under one of the rivers and flooding all the tunnels, and that is keeping them from doing it. We felt that was not the right way to go, and that’s why we didn’t pursue it in NY – but we would be very interested in doing it if that ever changes."
More than everything, it is clear the biggest hurdle is not so much the intense technology infrastructure or geographical limitations, but the initiative of companies involved to find new ways to address the challenges. According to Joe, the hardware and the expertise are all there.
"The transit system and the individual carriers should really step up and take up the responsibility to get this done, and we’ll see the benefits from the needs that need to be addressed," he says.
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.