Passengers expect internet access on the train to be as good as they have at home. In Norway, we have chosen to invest in a combination of mobile signal boosters and on-board Wi-Fi.
Bright screens, deep concentration and you could hear a pin drop. Welcome to morning travel on Norway’s commuter trains!
Norwegians top the global rankings when it comes to use of smart phones and mobile data, and are used to having the internet in their pockets. People expect a stable internet connection and access to digital services not only at home and at work but everywhere they may be – including when travelling.
This is why commuters quickly become irritated when the coverage falls short. Unfortunately, this is something that happens more often than Norwegian rail passengers would like.
If travelling by train is to become even more attractive, it must be easy to clear some of the day’s work tasks and actions on the way to work. The solution lies in adequate mobile networks along the railway lines – and a technology that ensures stable networks inside the train too.
For passengers, a good experience is the sum of good internet coverage, good data rates and a stable network (see Fig. 1). In this article, Norske tog describes what it is doing to improve the online experience of Norwegian rail passengers.
Bodywork that shields passengers from sun, noise – and mobile signals
Internet access on the rail network is no easy matter, and particularly not in a country such as Norway.
Norway is long and narrow, with scattered settlements, high mountains and deep valleys. The Norwegian rail network comprises 3,867 kilometres of track cutting through the landscape and 688 tunnels. Although 4G coverage in Norway is generally good, measurements carried out by Bane NOR show that coverage along the railway lines varies. Norske tog is working with Simula Research Laboratory to obtain objective figures for the coverage experienced. Simula has developed measurement nodes that simulate the passenger experience. The results show that the coverage shifts between 4G and older technologies. Inadequate coverage means a poorer customer experience. The fact that many Norwegian railway tunnels lack mobile coverage is also a challenge.
Improving coverage in tunnels will require the telecoms service providers to extend mobile networks in places where there is currently no coverage.
Even if there is good internet coverage along the railway line, good coverage inside the train is not a given.
Modern trains are built with passenger comfort in mind, with the bodywork intended to absorb vibrations and noise, shield passengers from the sun and reduce heat loss. The result is bodywork that not only stops noise and heat getting through but also attenuates mobile signals from the outside.
Current technology offers the following solutions, among others, for providing internet-based services on board trains (see Fig. 2):
- A mobile signal booster solution where boosters installed in the train capture the telecoms providers’ coverage on the outside of the train, boost the signals and re-transmit them as traditional mobile coverage inside the train.
- Modern windows that avoid loss of signal
- A Wi-Fi solution where an indoor Wi-Fi system uses several modems to capture the telecoms providers’ coverage on the outside of the train and converts these signals to indoor Wi-Fi coverage for the passengers.
Target data rate of minimum 5 Mbit/s
As Norwegians’ mobile habits become more sophisticated, the websites they are surfing become more content heavy with a propensity to use more video. This requires increased data capacity and higher data rates, and the demands being made by passengers are growing. Not all passengers have strong views on whether they use Wi-Fi or get online using their own mobile subscription via a signal booster.
There are pros and cons to both solutions. Norske tog considers the best solution should be based on passengers getting adequate mobile signals inside the train, i.e. a mobile signal booster solution.
Wi-Fi can be an advantage for passengers with limited data allowances, using devices that do not have a SIM-card or with a subscription that does not include roaming in Norway. Wi-Fi networks of this nature often become their own worst enemy: The more passengers using them, the more sluggish and unstable they become, which does not make for good customer experiences.
Most Norwegian mobile subscriptions have a fixed monthly price that includes voice calls and text messages (SMS). Price differentiation is based on the data allowance. Competition between telecoms providers has boosted both data allowances and transfer rates, and made them cheaper.
Norske tog’s goal is for Norwegian trains to be able to offer every single passenger a data rate of minimum 5 Mbit/s, which is enough to allow video streaming. This means it makes most sense to invest in mobile signal boosters that ensure sufficient capacity for good, fast and stable mobile coverage for passengers.
Mobile signal boosters also offer an advantage in terms of security. In a society where ever more items are connected to the internet, having control of who has access to data in the same network is crucial. An increasing number of employers now require work to be done on secure rather than open networks, which is what Wi-Fi on trains represents.
Train operating companies target customer interaction
Norske tog considers it makes the most sense to invest in mobile signal boosters to achieve good internet coverage, but realises at the same time that the train operating companies benefit from being able to offer Wi-Fi. With increasing competition in the sector, it is becoming ever more important for the train operating companies to establish channels for customer contact and to offer added value – with the aim of creating customer loyalty. Installing Wi-Fi networks allows the train operating companies to offer customers added value in the form of internet coverage, enabling them also to offer content services such as films, newspapers and games. Wi-Fi provision will also give the many tourists who visit Norway free internet access without having to buy expensive roaming packages. This is why Norske tog believes Wi-Fi solutions also have a future on Norwegian trains, but financed and run by the train operating companies.
Need to invest NOK 3.1 billion
There is no question that Norske tog must help to create good travel experiences, and that the key to this lies partly in good, stable internet coverage. Customer analyses conducted by NSB show that passengers are not satisfied with the current internet coverage. We have to up our game!
The need to ensure better internet access on trains has been raised time and again by Norway’s transport ministers. The government’s goal is for more people to use public transport, and providing good working conditions and good internet access while travelling is one means of achieving this.
The Ministry of Transport and Communications has worked with the mobile service providers to upgrade the mobile network along Norway’s railway lines. The Ministry has also tasked Norske tog with renewing the mobile signal boosters on trains to provide better internet coverage for passengers. Norske tog’s Stadler FLIRT trains are fitted with 4G signal boosters, which have significantly improved coverage on board. New trains delivered as from August 2019 will be fitted with upgraded communication equipment. This covers both mobile signal boosters and Wi-Fi solutions.
With a view to offering rail passengers improved internet coverage, the Norwegian Railway Directorate recently recommended a coverage strategy that entails both establishing modern mobile signal-boosting solutions in the trains, and improving coverage in the mobile service providers’ terrestrial networks and in Bane NOR’s railway tunnels. The strategy will be implemented in stages, with first priority given to black holes in areas with high passenger numbers. The estimated cost of the coverage strategy is NOK 3.1 billion.
The mobile network is key
Norway was one of the first countries to invest in internet access for passengers by offering Wi-Fi on trains, and the vast majority of trains now have Wi-Fi. Now, even more than before, the rail sector can benefit from the comprehensive upgrade of Norway’s mobile network currently under way. The telecoms providers are already working on closing down Norway’s 3G network and replacing it with 4G technology, which provides better, faster and more stable networks.
Good network coverage will make the train an even more attractive choice – unless you prefer to sit quietly enjoying the peace and the fine views outside the windows, while your fellow passengers are glued to their glowing screens.
- Two 4-band mobile signal boosters (2x2 MIMO)
- Four Cat6 modems in Wi-Fi solution (3 in the first trainsets)
- Better antennas and modems (4x4 MIMO)
- Upgraded access point to 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5)
The Norwegian Railway Reform
The Norwegian Railway Reform, initiated in 2016/2017, has seen the state-owned rail sector undergo extensive and radical reorganisation. Ownership of the passenger rolling stock was transferred to Norske tog as an independent company owned by the Ministry of Transport and Communications. The passenger trains are leased to train operating companies awarded geographical tenders, known as “Traffic Packages”. The UK company Go-Ahead recently won the tender for the Sørland Railway, and more packages will be awarded over the next few years. The train operating companies are responsible for operation and maintenance of the trains they lease.