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Climate change, global pandemics, security, rising passenger expectations or increased demand for real-time data: digital services are key elements in the transition to smarter mobility. Paul Barnes, Director of Marketing at Icomera, a subsidiary of Equans France, talks about the connection between digital transformation and the environment.

Wireless communication in public transport, whether on trains, trams, or buses, is becoming increasingly common. This growing trend is driven by three main factors: the evolution of society, technological innovations and sustainable development. The discontinuity of digitization only occurred a few decades ago, but it completely changed the relationship between people and information, and it is now instant and available to everyone, everywhere, provided they have a smart device.

Chat with friends and family, get information, work, plan a trip, and adapt to unexpected circumstances, like our lawyer’s case: the digital age provides essential tools to make life and everyday tasks easier. The Covid crisis has accelerated and reinforced this trend, as technology enables people to work and stay productive anywhere, not just in the office.

Since Icomera developed the world’s first in-car Wi-Fi in 2003, technology has continued to advance and open up opportunities for operators. The first iPhone in 2007, the democratization of smartphones, commercial 4G networks beginning to appear in 2012, and 5G in 2019: each milestone brought new conveniences to users and ultimately raised living standards and associated expectations. Finally, environmental awareness has played an indirect but essential role in the digitization of public transportation, especially since the transportation sector is responsible for about one-fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions. As a result, travel habits are gradually changing from individual travel patterns to mass passenger transportation systems such as trains, trams or buses.

Night trains, in particular, grew in popularity with the establishment of networks across Europe. This development has accelerated the demand for the digitization of public transportation, allowing passengers to remain productive, informed or entertained throughout their journey.

What technical challenges must be faced to ensure optimal communication in trains, both in terms of speed and reliability?

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

Imagine a small village with a population of 1,000 people at a speed of more than 200 km/h near a mobile phone network operator (MNO) cell tower and leaving at the same speed. It will have a hard time connecting multiple users at once and managing the “delivery” to the next tower without losing or dropping out of the connection. Add to this the inability to connect to more than one MNO simultaneously for most personal mobile devices, poor network coverage and capacity along roads, and the metallic construction of public transportation vehicles that tend to jam 99.9% of external RF signals, a phenomenon called the “Faraday cage effect” . Throughout its history, the digital industry has successfully provided solutions to these various challenges.

Thanks to the SureWAN algorithm, the foundational Icomera technology was invented in 1999, the same year the term “Wi-Fi” was first used, as train routers were able to connect to multiple networks and cell towers at the same time, increasing data capacity and availability, minimizing data loss during transfers. Using antennas specifically designed to be mounted on the roof, wireless providers were able to circumvent the Faraday cage effect by capturing all available capacity from the 4G and 5G networks around the vehicle and providing it entirely to the internal network. In addition, new milestones in connection throughput and reliability have been achieved with multi-modem aggregation routers, which combine the capability of multiple cellular towers from several mobile network operators.

Recently, 5G technology has opened up new horizons for wireless communication in trains. In 2020, Icomera became the first company to successfully design, build and test a 5G-enabled router for the railway industry. During the trial, the train from Stockholm to Gothenburg in Sweden set a new industry record throughput, receiving more than one gigabit of data per second using only commercial networks. To illustrate this success, providing “gigabit” speeds is equivalent to simultaneous broadcasting by passengers of more than 10,000 tracks or 200 HD movies.

What are the prospects for technological development?

As is often the case with digital technologies, the applications are countless, if not limitless. Thus, unlike passenger Wi-Fi, Internet connectivity provides solutions to many problems around the world. Among its many applications, the technology can support live broadcasting and analysis of data from onboard CCTV cameras, in-flight entertainment portals that display the latest movies and TV shows, passenger information within reach of the visually impaired, hard of hearing or the elderly, or sensors Onboard aircraft that monitor railway tracks and improve transportation efficiency. Icomera recently had the opportunity to deploy these various systems in the UK, France and on the Lausanne rail corridor in the US, with VIA Rail in Canada and on the popular Bergen Line in Norway.

As public transportation is increasingly seen as the guarantor of a more sustainable era and increased competition between operators, the rising expectations of commuters cannot be overlooked. Having an advanced internet connection is no longer considered a luxury comfort for travelers, but rather a mandatory service that operators must offer to remain competitive and attractive. As technology advances, passengers have shown a diminishing tolerance for mid-range equipment on trains, insufficient to support the increasingly ubiquitous uses of video, whether professional or personal. Conversely, high-quality Wi-Fi offers a huge advantage to operators who have adopted it, particularly to attract “Generation Z”, digital natives born since the mid-1990s, less inclined to drive and more aware of the problems associated with climate emergencies. This demographic will play a major role in returning to public transportation after the pandemic. However, Generation Z is also the most privileged group of consumers, having grown up in a world where services are delivered almost instantly and expectations for quality and reliability are very high.

To meet these expectations, it is now up to transport operators to incorporate these new standards, seize the multiple opportunities offered by advanced internet connectivity, and lead the way towards a smarter, safer and greener future for the entire mobility sector. During this transition, continued research and development by digital companies is essential in order to be able to continue to innovate and improve the attractiveness of public transport.

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