Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, commuting to work via public transportation has been a way of life. From the days of the trolley cars of old to modern subway systems, commuters regularly have used their commutation time to consume information. It used to be printed materials like magazines and newspapers, but increasingly commuters want/expect to be able to use their personal devices (smartphones and tablets) not just statically to view stored content but to interact with remote content in real time. And, they expect the user experience to be compelling.
A recent Alcatel-Lucent (News - Alert) (ALU) piece, Communications: Revolutionising Railway Communications with Wireless Broadband, put a spotlight on the importance of wireless broadband communications for the commuting public. Let’s face it, mobile device users already are accustomed to the high-speed wireless broadband such as 4G and LTE (News - Alert). And, whether a high-speed above ground or below ground, these same users do not want rail transportation of any type or duration to end up being blind spots in their ability to communicate and consumer the content they want. In fact, Alcatel-Lucent can demonstrate how wireless broadband has benefits not just for commuters in their railway communications but also for the railroads themselves.
However, as ALU also pointed out, railways need to budget for and configure wireless broadband capabilities taking into account not just the bandwidth requirements for commuter trains during rush hour but also the public safety and other operations needs of the rail systems and how to upgrade seamlessly and inexpensively their legacy systems to support the move to LTE.
What is occurring in Europe in this regard is instructive. A European Commission report a few years ago recommended upgrades in infrastructure. The report noted that while at the time upgrading to wireless broadband might seem expensive, it was an investment in future operational efficiencies due to things like real-time asset monitoring and public safety that would have long-term benefits. The problem has been that era of scarce financial resources on exascerbates the industry's history of being slow to adopt new communicationsand computing technologies. Reality is most railway communications systems were built before the IP era. This means they are poor candidates for an easy or inexpensive way to transition their infrastructure to a wireless broadband LTE solution.
As noted above, a long-term view says that it would be short-sighted for railways to not be seriously looking to upgrade to LTE with the acknowledgement that it will likely take time, but that strategic deployment of the technology could produce significant short-term benefits. What this translates into is that while there are a variety of options available for railway operators for accommodating the growing desires of commuters to use their personal devices they need to be considered in the context of the availability of LTE bandwidth near the railway right-of-way. In other words, things like appropriate cellular sector capacity, Wi-Fi based TWC infrastructure and access to relevant mobile backhaul capabilities are critical. Indeed, as Alcatel-Lucent highlights, without the dedicated infrastructure, LTE railway communication projects will likely be slow to implement, particularly without a good strategic plan in place. The company is working with partners to find the best methods of transitioning to LTE.
One area of particular attention is leveraging the combination of IP/MLS with Tetra towers and WLAN devices to give passengers access to the ticketing and multimedia information they need, as well as video on demand. Where operators will see immediate operation benefits will be through the ability to use the upgraded infrastructure to improve their business processes by greater reliance on unified communications capabilities for support supervision. In addition, as has been highlighted in the past years on TMC (News - Alert), wireless broadband is becoming the platform of choice for multiple media video surveillance for use not just in crime prevention but also in increasing the effectiveness of first responders in emergency situations.
The bottom line for wireless broadband deployment by railroads ultimately is the bottom line—happier and safer customers, and improved operations. Not a bad combination since over the long-haul the numbers seem to more than add up.
Edited by Peter Bernstein