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Ofcom Adds 39GHz as Option for Supplying WiFi on UK Trains

Monday, July 27th, 2020 (4:36 pm) - Score 1,514
trains and railways uk

Ofcom has today updated their advice to the UK Government on spectrum bands suitable for providing “trackside to train connectivity,” which adds the 39GHz band as a possible option. In the future this could be used to support on-board ultrafast broadband capable WiFi access points or mobile (4G, 5G) small cells for commuters.

Back in December 2017 the UK Government pledged to make “uninterruptedWiFi and Mobile (5G) broadband speeds of up to 1Gbps (Gigabits per second) available on-board all UK mainline train routes by 2025, although since then we’ve rarely seen this mentioned anywhere and earlier this year the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) similarly questioned whether it will be achieved on time (here).

As part of that the Government asked Ofcom to provide technical advice in order to help identify which radio spectrum bands might be suitable for providing related track-side to train connectivity. The regulator’s updated advice continues to recommend the potential use of the 26GHz (24.25-27.5 GHz) and 66-71GHz bands, but they’ve now also added the 39GHz band as an option.

The regulator’s broad view is that “spectrum availability is not a barrier to improving trackside connectivity.

Ofcom’s Statement

The best spectrum options to provide trackside to train connectivity supplying backhaul for Wi-Fi access points or mobile small cells on passenger trains are likely to be the 39 GHz band (39-40 GHz), and the 66-71 GHz band. These bands:

• can support large bandwidths (so could be used to support the amounts of data traffic we expect rail passengers will need by the mid-2020s and beyond); and

• are relatively lightly used (so it would be easier to find spectrum in these bands than in other bands for trackside to train connectivity without causing significant problems for existing users elsewhere).

In addition, relevant equipment to make use of these bands is already available, or is expected to become available soon.

In addition to the two bands mentioned above we continue to believe that the 26 GHz band (24.25-27.5 GHz) is also suitable. We are currently considering our future licensing approach for this band to facilitate its use for 5G. Part of this consideration will be how we might facilitate its use for trackside to train connectivity if there is demand for this.

The other bands discussed in our 2018 advice are much less suitable. This is because we don’t think they will be able to support the high data speeds that are likely to be needed to provide passengers with a good wireless connection by the mid-2020s.

Just to be clear, we’re talking about the capacity supply to a moving train, rather than the end-user link itself. Connections to mobile devices and laptops on-board would thus still be made (distributed) to you via the normal mobile and WiFi bands (e.g. 2.4GHz).

We should remind readers that the original report also calculated how much data (bandwidth) the average passenger might require if demand in 2017 was “unconstrained“, which resulted in a figure of just 150Kbps (0.15Mbps). This might seem low but it’s akin to a bare minimum (i.e. if every user was active at the same time and transferring data), which in practice doesn’t usually happen (i.e. fewer users tend to share the capacity).

Ofcom said this meant that a 550-passenger train in 2017/18 may need to be fuelled by 80Mbps of capacity, before rising to 120Mbps for 800 passengers and 180Mbps for 1,200 passengers. But come 2025 the expectations were that such demands would have risen significantly, with an individual passenger now needing between 0.6Mbps to 2.5Mbps (i.e. the capacity needed for a 1,200 passenger train could hit 3.6Gbps).


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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.
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9 Responses
  1. Avatar Steve says:

    Those bandwidth figures still seem incredibly slow to me. I agree, on a 550 passenger train it’s unlikely that all 550 will be downloading at exactly the same time, but to suggest that 80Mbit would have been enough capacity for 550 people in 2017 seems ludicrous.

    Even 2gbit in 2025 seems like way too little to serve that amount of people adequately. If you’re just sending emails maybe, but a use-case for train journeys will be music and video, which saps a lot of that precious bandwidth.

    1. Avatar CarlT says:

      At this time streaming is blocked on trains. If that doesn’t change, alongside having delivering some content from caches on the train as some operators already do via walled garden portals, it’s ample.

  2. Avatar Buggerlugz says:

    Don’t matter, who’s going to use trains in the future exactly? Are the office based workers ever going to return to daily commuting? nope. Do their companies want to save millions in building costs/rental/rates/running costs by having their staff continue to work from home? yes.

    So considering how fewer people will be using trains, if anything its Wi-Fi as is, will be better than it was in February.

    1. Avatar CarlT says:

      Probably be a mix between them, though for sure it’ll be a lower number than earlier demand.

  3. Avatar Anthony says:

    I might be misreading this article totally, but why have a bandwidth open just for trains to use? Couldn’t everyone use that bandwidth for wifi? And why does it have to be this bandwidth for trains to use, is there something special about it for use in trains?

    1. Avatar James™ says:

      I think it’s referring to the train connecting to wireless access points alongside the track and then would distribute WiFi in the train as normal

  4. Avatar Nick Roberts says:

    Poverty of ambition and lack of imagination writ large, comme meme.

    Depends whether remote workers maintain productivity long-term. Social isolation will take its toll. Maintaining esprit de corps, standards, company loyality will also suffer in the absence of at least periodic face-to-face contact with co-workers – As the latter doesn’t have to be done centrally, travel patterns of commuters may tend to become periodic and dispersed. Of course, all the orange T motivated lot will look at initially will be the short-term cost savings.There will be a second round of adjustment to optimise the factors described above.

    And,the possibility cannot be disregarded that the vacated commuter seats would be re-occupied, at least in part, by leisure customers. Duh !

    Back to 14th century with JR Moggie.



  5. Avatar JojoTheGreat says:

    This is great, I’d really like to see better wifi on UK trains.
    Essentially working wifi means I can be at home with my kids an hour earlier. As it stands today, I can’t usually work on my train home from St Pancras except for replying to emails or editing a word doc. But It would be really great if I could maintain a VPN connection throughout my train journey.

  6. Avatar MR SIMON HAYTER says:

    You would think they would of come up with a way of delivering internet using the thick steel rails considering they can pump 10Gbit down a tiny coaxial cable.

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