Industry infighting means mobile users face long delays on UK trains

When it comes to coverage on the rail network, we're all in second class

Comment Mobile coverage on trains is rubbish, Wi-Fi isn’t much better and battles between companies offering the services are not going to make it much better.

A plan to offer fibre running down the side of the tracks, which would have given great Wi-Fi coverage, has been abandoned, despite Network Rail’s 2013 technical strategy review (PDF) highlighting “reliable broadband and cellular services throughout the journey, ensuring customers are always connected” as a key goal.

The most recent news was a £50m pledge to have good coverage by 2017.

While plans to end the lack of coverage have repeatedly floundered, the mobile operators have conspired to buffalo attempts to ameliorate the issue by limiting data to companies which want to aggregate communications.

Mobile coverage on trains is difficult. You have a large number of subscribers moving at speed whose communications all want to hand off from cell to cell at pretty much the same time. They also have their signals attenuated by being in the partial Faraday cage of a train with radio-opaque windows.

A better solution is to have a decent antenna on the roof of the train and a gigantic Mi-Fi hotspot for the whole train. That’s what Icomera sells to Train Operating Companies who rent their trains from the rolling stock companies (Roscos). Icomera has paired up with TCP/IP optimization specialist Teclo Networks, punting "an even faster browsing experience".

The systems use 3G and 4G data connections, which act as backhaul for the Wi-Fi inside the carriages. This must make those SIMs some of the heaviest consumers of mobile data on the network, as a train can have 200 live Wi-Fi connections.

Unfortunately, that also means 200 people who are using the aggregated connection and so who are not using their mobile phone. This means the revenue to the mobile network is both reduced and the middle-man of the Train Operating Companies’ Wi-Fi takes a slice.

So despite running up an epic mobile data bill, the Wi-Fi providers don’t get any favours from the mobile networks. There are ways around what the networks might charge but not around the inevitable quality of service. LTE has some wonderful options to provide individual SIMs with different levels of service and you might imagine that one SIM being shared by 200 people would be provisioned with a higher level of service.

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