By Stephanie Kinch, Wi-Fi NOW Staff Writer
American passengers are ready for on-train Wi-Fi. American train operators are ready for on-train Wi-Fi. But is the network ready?
That’s one of the questions faced by Xentrans Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in in-vehicle wireless system design and deployment.
“One of the challenges for trains is that the promise of 4G never actually happened in America,” says Xentrans CEO Jim Baker. “We were promised very high speeds over 50 Mbps, which some countries do experience, but in North America, it isn’t happening.”
Usage soars, investments plummet
Mobile penetration rates in America have skyrocketed in recent years, with almost 80 percent of the adult population owning a smartphone. One could assume that increased usage would mean increased investment in infrastructure by mobile operators, but that isn’t the case. According to CTIA, Mobile operator investment dropped from USD$31.9 billion in 2015 to USD$26.4 billion in 2016.
The United States was ranked fourth in the 2017 Global Innovation Index rankings, coming in behind Switzerland, Sweden, and Netherlands. But tech innovation can only go so far if it doesn’t have the speed to back it up – and when it comes to speed, the United States is in the slow lane.
A study by Open Signal showed that the United States ranked 68th in 4G speed rates, with an average speed of only 13.95Mbps.
“America is like a third-world country when it comes to the quality and speed of 4G networks,” says Baker. “And you just can’t rely on spotty 4G coverage along a railway line.”
Connecting the tracks
Spotty coverage and slow speeds have forced US rail operators to look beyond relying on commercial cellular networks for connecting passengers and train operations to the Internet. For rail operator Amtrak, this required the construction of dedicated trackside networks.
Trackside base stations mostly tap into the pre-existing fibre. Plans exist to install fibre in track locations where it isn’t available. Once complete, Baker says that the network will be able to provide trains with Internet connection speeds of over 200 Mbps.
That’s ten times more than the average speed of 20 Mbps delivered to trains today. Other options include a hybrid system like that of FrontRunner, Salt Lake City’s commuter rail. This system switches to trackside coverage in heavy traffic areas via an onboard system.
Wi-Fi: The Golden Ticket
Rail operators in the US want to get commuters off the road and onto the rails. According to Baker, reliable Internet coverage may just be the key to doing that. Research shows that passengers will use a free Internet connection on journeys of more than 15 minutes. Still – accordingly to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) – only 10 percent of US commuter trains currently offer passenger Wi-Fi access.
“Transit operators are faced with a double-edged sword,” says Baker. “They know they have to provide this service, but they are beholden to network operators for it.”
What will it take for the other 90 percent of trains to get connected? One word: Results.
And those are on their way. Over the past three years, Amtrak has seen a significant increase in traffic on their high-speed routes from Washington to Boston. Passenger Wi-Fi consumes over 2 Terabytes of data each day on Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor, while Wi-Fi traffic per user has increased 148% in the last year.
“The market has matured to an extent where it is not in the hands of the startups, but in the hands of the large corporate companies, who will create a big shift,” says Baker.