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Ofcom updates rail connectivity plans

July 27, 2020

By Colin Mann

UK comms regulator Ofcom has published updated advice to the Government on the airwaves that could be used to improve broadband for rail passengers.

In 2018, Ofcom provided initial advice to the UK Government on how demand for on-board data services for passengers is likely to grow in the coming years; and on the types of spectrum that could be authorised and used to meet that demand. It has now published an update to that advice outlining the best spectrum options to provide track-to-train connections through backhaul for WiFi or mobile small cells on passenger trains.

Ofcom believes the 39-40 GHz and 66-71 GHz bands would be best for providing these connections and deliver a more reliable data connection to passengers. There is large capacity in these bands and existing availability of the required equipment.

Ofcom is currently considering future plans for the 26 GHz band, including use for 5G. If there is demand to use this band for trackside services, it will take this into account when considering its future licensing approach.

Separately, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced that a £200,000 government investment will launch research into developing an innovative prototype that will improve mobile connectivity for thousands of rail passengers. It could signal the end of Internet blackouts leading to more productive rail journeys thanks to better WiFi.

With over a third of the 11,000 miles of Great Britain’s railways electrified using overhead line equipment (OLE), research funded by the Department for Transport has found that it is possible to attach communications antennas to them, improving connectivity for passengers as well as reducing the need to build additional track-side masts, therefore cutting costs.

The Mott MacDonald report has found there is significant potential to utilise these existing structures to mount equipment, a technique that is increasingly being used in countries such as Austria to address railway mobile connectivity challenges.

Telcos are now being urged to come forward and develop suitable equipment for the next phase of the trial which will test how antennas can be safely fixed onto OLE in a live railway environment with findings expected to be published by March 2021.

“It is just not good enough that passenger’s mobile connectivity experience is still poor, blighting our efforts to work, shop and communicate on everyday journeys,” commented Shapps. “By harnessing innovation and updating existing infrastructure, we can build the railway of tomorrow and find affordable solutions to improve travel for passengers. I urge telecom operators to match our ambition and we can commit to working closely together to design equipment and move forward in the next stage of this exciting trial.”

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