As networks spread and become more dense, consumers will expect to be connected wherever they are. Public transport has been slow to keep up with this trend, but Capitol Corridor, an intercity passenger train system that provides convenient public transport across the second-largest urban service area in the Western United States, has been one of leaders in the US, in providing WiFi on trains. We sat down with James Allison, Manager of Planning, who has lead the project to get Capitol Corridor commuters connected on their journeys.
What changes have you seen in the transport industry with regards to cellular and broadband coverage, over the last 12 months?
There is a slow movement afoot to replace legacy systems which are usually IP-siloed from each other which may operate over each, to a separate cellular connection, to better IP integration, or one IP communications platform. You throw growing demand for passenger Wi-Fi and there is an emerging convergence to one IP communications platform, often times using at least one, if not more cellular data cards, depending on the type of transit involved. However, some of the passenger rail operators don’t have sufficient aggregated cellular backhaul at points along the route to sustain a compelling passenger WiFi experience so they are looking to supplement coverage by building their own networks. As well, as end user contention builds for the built 4G networks, even aggregated cellular re-purposed as WiFi hot spots on the transit vehicle begin to degrade, so over time the investments in these systems for transit degrades until the next cellular technology refreshes the market. The transit market is looking at ways to continue to use mission critical (usually safety related) communications, but then assemble non-mission critical systems over cellular because it is so ubiquitous in urban environments.
What are your priorities for the next year ahead with WiFi offering for customers?
We are focused on fine tuning our existing Wi-Fi system at the network operating center, with some of the ways the IP traffic is handled, and then with our mix of aggregated cellular cards – trying to optimize that mix to reflect a better match to what is built and providing the best service around our route today, versus when we launched over two years ago. We are also focussed on using the Wi-Fi network as the backbone of real-time/geo-fenced operational applications, such as on-board information systems.
How can the telecom industry help overcome your current challenges?
Coverage; pointing cellular antennas in the direction of transit is important in some cases, In other cases, the transit properties themselves can be real estate opportunities to telecoms to host telecom infrastructure. In other cases, some of the busiest transit systems have customers who are really data burdening existing telecom systems and in those cases off-loading those customers to transit system hosted WiFi could be an option for freeing cellular data bandwidth for non-transit customers. Overall, I think transit has some interesting real estate and “same customer” relationships which deserve further exploration. We both want to have more customers or solidify the customer experience and especially on the data side, optimizing networks or working together on that objective seem like fruitful grounds to work collaboratively. It is all case by case, but there are some really interesting matches out there if you look for them. But also, transit providers probably need some education about those opportunities as well – we just are not used to working with each other…yet.
In your opinion, why should industry representatives attend HetNet USA in May 2015?
From my perspective, whether you are in transit or another vertical or in the telecom industry itself, you have to get together to experience the debates of today, or piece together the emerging approaches to solve the problems of tomorrow. As a planner, I could not imagine ignoring these developments and opportunities at a conference such as this to learn something so that you can strategically position your company for the future.