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14.06.2022

Luxury amenity or necessary service? Icomera, world’s leading provider of transport connectivity services, highlights the link between digital and green transition

February 2022, in the surroundings of Hamburg, Germany – On his way to court, a lawyer is forced to a halt due to an intercity train breaking down. With no hope of arriving at his destination on time, the lawyer connects to the train Wi-Fi and is able to attend and defend his case throughout the whole session. Beyond the pleasing anecdote, this event illustrates the tremendous technological progress made by the industry in terms of connectivity services in public transport. Climate change, global pandemics, security, growing expectations from passengers or increasing demand for real-time data: onboard digital services, and high-end Wi-Fi in particular, lie at the heart of the future of travel and will be key components in the transition towards smarter, safer, greener mobility.

Learning more with Paul Barnes, Chief Marketing Officer of Icomera, a company of EQUANS France.

Wireless connectivity in public transport, whether in trains, trams, or buses, is becoming increasingly popular. How can this be explained?

This growing trend is carried by three main drivers: societal change, breakthrough technological innovations, and environnemental awareness. The irruption of digitalisation happened only a few decades ago but it completely changed the relationship between people and information, now instantaneous and accessible to all from any location (provided they have a smart device). Exchanging with friends and family, keeping up to date, working, preparing for a trip, adapting to unexpected circumstances like our lawyer: the digital era provides key tools to facilitate individuals’ daily lives and tasks. The Covid crisis only accelerated that trend, with technology enabling people to work and stay productive from everywhere, not just the office.

Since Icomera developed the world’s first onboard Wi-Fi service back in 2003, technology hasn’t ceased to progress and to unlock opportunities for operators. The first iPhone in 2007, democratisation of smartphones, commercial 4G networks starting to appear in 2012, 5G in 2019: each milestone brought new amenities to end-customers and ultimately raised standards
of life and associated expectations. Finally, environnemental awareness has played an indirect yet key role in the digitalisation of public transport. With transport accounting for around one-fifth of global carbon dioxide (CO2 emissions), society’s travel habits are slowly shifting from individual travel modes to mass passenger transport systems such as trains, trams or buses. Night trains in particular have gained popularity, with networks being set up all across Europe. This shift has accelerated the demand for public transport’s digitalisation, allowing passengers to stay productive, informed or entertained during their whole journey.

What are the technical challenges in providing optimal connectivity in trains, both in terms of speed and reliability?

The core of Icomera’s technology is aggregation, using all cellular networks available along the route to provide passengers with the fastest, most reliable connection on board.

Imagine a small village of 1,000 people arriving at over 200 km/h near a Mobile Network Operator’s (MNO) cell tower and leaving just as fast. It will struggle to connect this many users at once and manage the “handover” to the next tower without the connection being interrupted or lost. Add to that the impossibility of connecting to more than one MNO at a time for most personal mobile devices, poor network coverage and capacity along routes and the metallic construction of public transport vehicles which tends to block 99,9 % of external Radio Frequency signals, a phenomenon called the Faraday Cage Effect. Along its history, the digital industry has come up with solutions to these different challenges.

Through the SureWAN algorithm - Icomera’s founding technology invented in 1999, the same year in which the term “Wi-Fi” was first used - trains’ routers became capable of connecting to multiple cellular networks and towers at the same time, maximizing data capacity and availability, and minimizing data loss from handover. Through purpose-built roof-mounted antennas, wireless connectivity providers were able to bypass the Faraday Cage Effect by capturing all available 4G and 5G network capacity around the vehicle and delivering it in full to the vehicle’s own onboard network. And through multi-modem aggregation routers, combining the capacity of multiple cell towers from multiple MNOs, new milestones have been achieved in connection speed and reliability.

More recently, 5G technology has opened new horizons for wireless connectivity in trains. In 2020, Icomera became the first enterprise to successfully design, build and conduct live testing of a 5G-enabled router for the Rail industry. During the trial, the train travelling from Stockholm to Gothenburg in Sweden hit a new industry-record-breaking level of throughput, receiving over 1 gigabit of data per second using only commercial networks. To illustrate this achievement, the provision of ‘gigabit’ speeds is equivalent to passengers streaming over 10,000 songs or 200 HD films simultaenously.

What are the prospects for technological development?

As is often the case with digital technologies, applications are countless, if not limitless. Thus, beyond passenger Wi-Fi, internet connectivity provides solutions to many global issues. Among its multiple applications, the technology can support live streaming and data analytics from onboard video surveillance cameras, onboard entertainment portals showing the latest films and TV, passenger information in formats that are more accessible to the visually- or hearing- impaired, or the elderly, or even onboard sensors that monitor train tracks and improve efficiency. Icomera recently had the opportunity to deploy these different systems in the UK, in France, on
the Lossan rail corridor in the US, with VIA Rail in Canada, and on the emblematic Bergen Line in Norway.

As public transport is increasingly seen as the custodian of a more sustainable era, and competition between operators intensifies, passengers' growing expectations cannot be overlooked. Having high-end Internet connectivity is no longer seen as a luxury amenity for travelers, but a mandatory service that operators must offer to stay competitive and attractive. As technology advances, passengers are showing a decreasing tolerance for mid-range equipment in trains, unable to allow for increasingly ubiquitous video uses, whether personal or professionnal. On the contrary, premium quality Wi-Fi provides a significant edge to operators who have adopted it, especially in attracting attracting ‘Generation Z’ – digital natives born since the mid-1990s – Less likely to drive cars, and more acutely aware of issues around the climate emergency, this demographic group could be key in helping drive the return to public transport post-pandemic. However, Generation Z are also the most discerning group of consumers to cater for, raised in a world of near-instant delivery of services and with very high expectations of quality and reliability.

It is now up to transport operators to integrate these new standards, seize the multiple opportunities offered by top-of-the-line internet connectivity, and lead the way towards a smarter, safer and greener future for mobility. In this transition, research and development by digital companies will be key to further innovate and improve the attractiveness of public transport.