What will 4G mean for rail passengers?

We seem to be hearing a lot about 4G/LTE in the press at the moment as deployments in the UK are ramping up. And we all know that the UK and Europe are actually behind other markets such as the US, in terms of commercial LTE deployments. But what does the deployment of 4G actually mean when it comes to real-life situations like travelling around a city in a taxi, or speeding through the countryside on a high-speed train for example?

We caught up with Axell Wireless’ Product Manager, Ingo Flömer, to ask him a bit more about what this could mean for our daily commute.

As a train passenger it is a regular occurrence to experience patchy 3G coverage at the best of times. How will rail and mobile operators ensure that good 4G coverage is achieved?

It is a good question, and one that I’m sure many regular commuters are asking as they hear more about 4G networks rolling out in their areas. Just by way of some context, Great Britain’s rail network consists of around 14,500 km of passenger and freight track. The network includes approximately 6,300km of ‘cuttings’ and 335km of tunnels, as well as areas of sparsely populated countryside. All these factors mean that ‘not-spots’ are created where coverage is poor.

As well as the terrain, the trains can actually be a big part of the problem too. Many people I talk to assume that mobile signals from outside simply penetrate the train and get inside that way. But with modern trains, the materials that are used to build them mean that the signal simply cannot get through. So even if there is coverage outside, there is no guarantee that you will be able to connect to that signal from inside the train. Somehow the rail and mobile operators need to work together to get that signal back inside the trains again.

This sounds like it could be fairly complicated?

Any installation project on a train has a number of complexities to be addressed at the planning stage. Ideally, a single solution needs to provide coverage across the 2G, 3G and 4G spectrum, so that customers with any major mobile network operator could benefit from it. The shape of trains – essentially, long metal tubes – means that the solution needs to be compact and comply with a number of very specific health and safety regulations. In addition, train operators need to be able to automatically retune services at border crossings to support local network operators thus providing passengers with seamless voice and data connectivity during their journey. Installation needs to be planned carefully to coincide with scheduled maintenance cycles.

As well as these practicalities, train operators also need to consider that if they do deploy a system to help with cellular coverage that it is future-proof and can cope with not only 2G and 3G, but also 4G as networks continue to be deployed all over the world. The DAS systems we deploy in many types of environments globally, can all cope with 2G, 3G and 4G traffic allowing our customers to future-proof against that inevitability and protect their customers.

What other challenges might the mobile operators and train companies face regarding the supply of an effective 4G network?

Mobile operators and train companies need to be conscious that whatever they deploy, that they will not need to upgrade again in the near future as their customers continue to become more demanding in terms of data. 4G customers are particularly demanding when it comes to data services on their devices and the system must be able to cope with that demand, both now and in the future as it continues to increase.  It is a trend that is not about to stop anytime soon!

It is also worth noting that 4G customers pay a premium in most markets for the service and they expect to receive ‘more’. They expect uninterrupted coverage, fast download speeds and an endless data supply. This is tough for some operators to supply in their standard networks, let alone on a high-speed train service.

Can you explain in a little more detail how we help rail and mobile operators overcome these challenges?

At Axell Wireless, we specialise in Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) which enable LTE signals to be enhanced in enclosed spaces such as train carriages or tunnels and metros, where maintaining a cellular signal has traditionally been challenging. Axell has delivered high-quality coverage solutions for public transport networks worldwide including establishing mobile coverage capabilities on the channel tunnel trains, the Hamburg Metro, Stockholm Metro and East Midlands Rail.

vodafone_blogVodafone tell us about getting cellular coverage on UK East Midlands Trains

A DAS works by taking the signal either from a mobile operator’s base station or from an off-air repeater (which receives the operator’s signal over the air) and then re-propagating it and amplifying it into the ‘hard-to-reach’ areas like trains and tunnels. You can watch our animation here to see how it works. In some instances, the DAS system can also incorporate ‘leaky feeder’ cabling which emits signals for devices to connect to. The equipment we use is compact and can easily fit inside existing storage areas or concealed cupboards on trains, with minimum visual impact to the passengers and can often be installed during scheduled maintenance time on a train.

So, taking all this into consideration, how do you see the future of 4G for train operators and their passengers?

Cellular connection in rail transportation is the future and we are already seeing it happening. At Axell, we regularly refer to this type of coverage as the fourth utility– people don’t see it as a ‘nice to have’ anymore, it is expected, regardless of where they are. With more and more of us commuting to work, and using our travel time as part of our working day, not having a cellular connection on a train can have a severe impact and lead to customer complaints.

For train operators, providing their passengers with good cellular coverage onboard their trains could act as a differentiator in what is currently a competitive marketplace. The systems they chose to deploy should prepare them for coping with future technologies such as 4G, without having to replace any equipment later down the line.


Ingo_Blog Ingo Flömer
Product Manager, Axell Wireless

Ingo is responsible for defining the product management strategy at Axell Wireless. He has over 20 years experience in telecommunication, wireless and fixed line and is also an Advisory Board Member for several enterprises and research projects.


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