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Wi-Fi on trains: the tech behind Scotland's expanding wireless web

Sade Laja Published 19 March 2012

Wi-Fi on trains: the tech behind Scotland's expanding wireless web

Those involved in Scotland's Wi-Fi on trains pilot talk about the challenges around connectivity and how they're planning for 4G. Sade Laja reports

The Scottish government moved a step closer towards its ambition of delivering Wi-Fi throughout the country when it recently announced a pilot of free wireless access on trains.

It awarded the ScotRail franchise a £250,000 contract to carry out the three-month trial, which will run from June until September on trains travelling primarily between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Mike Foster, major projects technical advisor for the Scottish government, describes launching such a project in Scotland as a "significant challenge" due to fact that the country is predominantly rural - a fact that led ScotRail to carry out signal strength surveys to ensure the service would work the length of the trains' journey.

"You can put as much kit on a train as you can dream of, but if you've got no signal to interface with then you really are kidding yourself, it's never going to work. That has been a massive background consideration for us," he says.

"We are aware that some other train companies have installed kit on trains on some fairly rural routes, like TransPennine for instance. We did a survey of the available technologies to see which was appropriate for semi-rural types of route and we have come up with two systems that we're now going to take forward to trial."

The systems being piloted are Nomad Digital's, which uses its R3200 router and the Icomera's, using its X6 router. Richard Brown, from ScotRail's technical fleet team, says that the systems will be installed on four Class 170 trains, each consisting of three vehicles.

An ethernet backbone will be installed with the aid of inter-vehicle jumpers to allow passengers to access the internet in each carriage without service degradation. Brown says that the router will be mounted in the roof space in the middle vehicle, close to the external antennae to minimise signal loss.

"The main difference between the systems will be how effectively the software manages the interface between the user and the internet service they receive. Both systems connect to the major phone networks simultaneously and split the available bandwidth across the networks at any given moment," he says. "It will be unnoticeable to passengers as they switch between the networks. They may be connected to all the phone networks over the course of their journey."

The other main management process of the trial will be ensuring that the software allows for fair access to all users. ScotRail and the government plan to achieve the necessary balance by dividing available bandwidth between all passengers who are connected to the network, which they hope will lead to self-regulation by passengers. If the system is being heavily used by a passenger watching a programme on BBC iPlayer, for example, that person will realise that they may experience insufficient bandwidth to allow uninterrupted viewing and stop watching.

"This is better than restricting websites with high bandwidth requirements, which can be frustrating for users," according to Brown. "When passengers attempt to connect to the Wi-Fi they will be directed to a landing page, which will explain the terms and conditions, explain that this is a trial, and ask for feedback via an online survey."

Scotland's Rail2014 consultation , which closed at the end of February, looked at a whole range of rail policy issues and contained specific questions around Wi-Fi on trains. The government hopes to tackle the points raised in time for the next ScotRail passenger services contract, due to come into place at the end of 2014.

Anne Martin, Rail2014 consultation manager at the Scottish government's rail directorate, says that it will wait to view the responses to the rail consultation before making any final policy decisions, such as whether Wi-Fi would remain free if rolled out further.

Martin is confident there is an appetite among citizens for such a service and is hopeful that the pilot will succeed. "This has all been generated because there has been a whole groundswell of opinion that people would like this mobile communication for their day-to-day living," she says.

Also on the government's list of considerations is making use of 4G when it arrives it is now expected to become available in 2013-14. Foster says the Scottish government is aware that 4G licences are currently being let by the UK government and says its Wi-Fi service has been prepared for the advent of next-generation mobile networks.

"The technology is futureproofed for whichever technology is emergent at the time. We're into 3G already, 4G is just around the corner, and those licences are currently being let. This technology will certainly be compatible with the latest 4G scenario," he says.

In the future, the main priority will be to gain customer feedback on the trial via a questionnaire, as well as having experts on board the trains to gauge whether the service is working effectively.

"This will be not only be to compare our response rates in Scotland, but to compare it to the rest of the facilities available on UK train services as well," Foster adds.







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