Everyone on trains has, at one point, suffered from poor connectivity on their phone, tablet or laptop when working while commuting, trying to access social media or catching up on the day’s news.

Poor on-board connectivity has become a fact of life at the moment, and consumers are becoming increasingly agitated at their inability to receive the same quality of connectivity on trains as they do at home. Nor is this frustration without justification; if the population could receive reliable connectivity onboard trains, it would likely create value for not only passengers and train operators, but the wider economy as well.

It’s therefore no surprise that the government has been vocal on this topic, calling for consumers to be able to receive a similar level of mobile voice and data access on trains as they do in urban areas — irrespective of service provider. The government has attached a specific target to this demand — Wi-Fi on 90% of journeys by 2018 — but, when you consider that just 62% of British rail routes currently have mobile coverage let alone Wi-Fi, you can see there’s still a long way to go.

What many consumers are unaware of when they complain is the sheer expense and complexity of providing reliable connectivity on trains, something we’ve blogged about before on this site.

What’s the industry doing about it?

I recently chaired the inaugural Gigabit Train event at techUK to discuss the technical and commercial challenges of providing wireless connectivity to trains by 2020. At the event were a number of rail wireless providers, including Nomad Digital and Fluidmesh; a satellite provider, Hispasat; the Department of Transport; and Ofcom.

I wrote an article for techUK on my first set of impressions from the workshop: that the technology required for wireless on the railways is starting to get better. However, I wanted to take the opportunity to follow up by considering another issue highlighted in the discussions; the amount of investment necessary to get mobile connectivity to an acceptable standard.

The crux of this problem is that the industry still needs to establish a business case for on-board connectivity. Without one, there is no commercial incentive for train companies to improve standards beyond their current level, especially when many train companies see Wi-Fi as a drain on resources.

A few years ago Real Wireless examined how such a business case could be constructed, for the RSSB. Our report found that, done correctly and efficiently, there’s actually a very clear opportunity to build such a business case — though it must look beyond Wi-Fi to mobile connectivity as a whole. The business case would need to encompass how to:

  • Get advertisers on board and set expectations for ad revenue based on the length of passenger journeys
  • Extend the benefits of connectivity to train companies themselves — as well as their customers — so they can make day-to-day train operations more efficient
  • Introduce new services and applications with a potential ‘killer’ app to improve the passenger experience — because relying on big data isn’t sufficient

With enough of a common view of the viable value propositions of these components the industry can tackle the next significant hurdle: achieving economies of scale by getting stakeholders to agree on a scalable solution and revenue model — something that will prove particularly difficult in the UK’s franchised rail network.

How to make progress? There is no doubt that the rail companies are a significant stakeholder; as part of their digital strategy they should drive the initiative and lead on establishing value chains that point to a sustainable business case. But the mobile operators also have an important role to play, establishing backhaul that is capable of supporting this solution.

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