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Gov Consultation Opens to Improve UK Mobile Coverage on Trains

Friday, June 12th, 2015 (9:06 am) - Score 2,062

Mobile reception when on-board one of the United Kingdom’s many train services is, more often than not, a mixed bag where patches of good reception can quickly evaporate into nothing to interrupt your entertainment or work flow. As such the Department for Transport has launched a new consultation with the aim of finding a solution.

In fairness work is already being undertaken to lay the foundations for improved connectivity, including Network Rails massive fibre optic infrastructure upgrade, its related roll-out “high speedMobile Broadband to 70% of train commuters by 2019 and WiFi on many of the busiest parts of Britain’s rail network by 2017 (here, here and here).

But those remaining not-spots and slow-spots will still be a huge problem and as such the Government’s new Call for Evidence is seeking views on what solutions could be used to solve this and how they might best support such proposals.

Ed Vaizey MP, Digital Economy Minister, said:

Dropped calls and intermittent access to the internet are frustrations felt by many rail passengers. Mobile communications are so important to passengers that free Wi-Fi now appears in the top ten priorities for improvement according to a major survey last year.

The Government is responding to this by investing millions of pounds to equip trains with new Wi-Fi equipment. This will go a long way to improving mobile connectivity on trains. Agreements the Government has secured to improve mobile coverage across the UK will take this even further. We are not complacent, however.

This call for evidence is instrumental to ensure we get the best possible deal for passengers and give them the mobile connectivity they want and need, both now and in the years to come. Through this call for evidence, we want to build on the work that has already happened across industry and reach a collective understanding of the remaining technical and commercial challenges and the potential solutions, making sure that any solution allows for the rapidly-changing technological landscape.”

But why is mobile reception so poor on trains? Obviously there are the usual things, such as any physical barriers to radio signals reaching the railway track (e.g. railway cuttings, buildings, tunnels and trackside clutter / trees etc.) and of course signal weakening from the train carriage walls and windows.

On top of that mobile operators are also commercially focused towards positioning masts in a way that will serve the most customers, which doesn’t always correlate with the location of rail lines; especially those that run through open rural areas. Some, but not all, of this will be tackled by the on-going work to spread 4G and improve geographic network coverage (here).

As such the consultation also attempts to propose some solutions of its own, which it splits into two somewhat self-explanatory categories: on-train and off-train.

Potential On-train Technical Options

1. On train Wi-Fi – roof-top antennas used to aggregate mobile network data signals and rebroadcast as a Wi-Fi signal within the train, in line with the Government policy announced in February 2015.

2. Digital on-board repeaters (D-OBR) – amplify external mobile signals within the carriages, reducing the signal attenuation effects of walls and windows.

3. Femto cells – these act as mobile base stations providing connectivity within carriages and requiring connectivity with the mobile operators’ networks.

4. ‘Passive repeaters’ – high-gain external antennae on all train carriages with low loss coupling to internal antennae, potentially reducing the effect of cuttings due to the height of the antenna and eliminating the attenuation effects of the carriage.

Potential Off-train Technical Options

1. Every mobile network operator makes improvements to their offrail infrastructure to improve coverage along the rail network. This would target not-spots to provide continuous coverage.

2. Every mobile network operator utilises Network Rail assets (including masts, facilities and telecommunications) to provide continuous coverage.

3. One or more mobile network operators provide mobile coverage across the rail route.

4. Instead of using mobile network operators, build a private network along the rail route with an alternative service provider.

5. Instead of using mobile network operators, use train-to-satellite mobile broadband connectivity to deliver both voice and data services.

6. Utilise future unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or tethered balloons to deliver targeted connectivity to trains or some other innovative option.

The Government said they will be taking feedback on all this until 10th July 2015.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
Leave a Comment
3 Responses
  1. “Utilise future unmanned aerial vehicles”

    I love the idea of a train having a drone escort to provide the Internet access! 🙂

    Maybe there could be a value-added version for a needy (business) passenger – some sort of “dial a drone” app perhaps!

    1. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      Train.. and Drone spotters :).

    2. Avatar dragoneast says:

      You couldn’t make it up . . . oh, the Government just did.

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