EE targets 1Gbps for on-train broadband
Written by: Laurence Doe | Published:

EE has said that it is in discussions to provide the UK's railways with a network capable of providing passengers with 1Gbps download speeds using LTE backhaul.

The MNO is planning to implement this on one railway line next year and should that be commercially successful, EE will extend it to as many lines as possible prior to the arrival of commercial 5G networks. As part of the discussions with the Home Office, EE may extend this project to the London Underground and Crossrail. It is developing a roadmap for the roll-out of this network for railways over the next 3-4 years.

Mansoor Hanif, director of radio access networks at EE, giving a presentation on "EE’s aspirations for the rail industry and the impact of ESN" at a "Going Underground" event organised by Cobham and RFS.

The roadmap will investigate the use of:

  • 4G backhaul over satellite;
  • meshed small cells with in-band backhaul;
  • delivery antenna on the trains with local LTE broadcast capability;
  • mobile edge server with onboard cache;
  • a macrosite upgrade with 5CC LTE-A + 256 QAM – this is to tackle the 35dB penetration loss caused by the train’s materials;
  • Next-gen repeaters;
  • leaky feeders

EE has also been using Gilat Satellite Networks, a provider of products and services for satellite-based broadband communications, in its trials. This has led it to discover that the satellite backhaul provided will be able to act as a backup to the small cells and macrosites for the network when needed.

Hanif said that EE is considering the use of UAVs to help maintain the network and to act as relays.

“Drones are already being used to survey and maintain the rail tracks,” Hanif said. “It’s a question of Ofcom then – whether we can experiment and allow [the UAVs] to supplement the coverage. It’s something that we’re going to actively pursue.”

He added that as far as user devices are concerned, the technology is already here, noting that Qualcomm's Snapdragon X16 LTE modem can deliver speeds of 1Gbps.

Hanif said that for in-tunnel coverage, macro-sites at the end of each tunnel could provide sufficient coverage as far as short tunnels are concerned, depending on tunnel length.

He went on to discuss some of the potential issues EE might face. A lot of trees near railway lines will have to be cut down because they inhibit mobile signals. The materials that train carriages are made of result in a ≥99.9 per cent loss of signal, making costly on-board repeaters essential.

For these challenges to be met, Hanif says industries must work together: Network Rail, train operating companies (TOCs), vendors, government and MNO.

For the macro-network, EE is making commercial arrangements with some of the TOCs, looking at specific lines and EE is working on commercial arrangements to fund investments on the lines to provide Wi-Fi service on trains using the 4G network as a backhaul network. EE is doing that actively today for several lines. EE is looking for more partners and is looking to speak with more TOCs.

Turning to the backbone of EE’s network, Hanif said that the MNO is rolling out 400Mbps speeds with an extra carrier and they have plans to add three more carriers over the next two years, regarding the backbone of the EE network.

EE is looking to prioritise this for the rail networks as it adds hundreds of Mbps of speed and it believes that it can get to five carriers by 2019 and with the right conditions that will get them close to 1Gbps.

"We have the technology to roll-out 1Gbps, but we don't have the consumer demand for it. Railways are asking for it,” Hanif said.

EE announced that it had signed a contract with Avanti Communications Group earlier this month to provide satellite capacity for cellular backhaul to connect a number of cellular sites across the UK to EE’s network. These will use the HYLAS 1 and 2 Ka band satellites to provide communications in remote areas and for additional network resilience. This is now going through “the final few trials” before deployment in September this year, said Hanif. He added that it will involve “thousands and thousands” of VSAT terminals, rolled out around the UK.

“It’s always been our aim that if we can get good quality VoLTE and data services up to 100 [Mbps] per link for backhaul, working over satellite, we want to use that backhaul and the extra capacity we buy from Avanti for embarked solutions and typically the train is the perfect solution for that.”

ESN scope
Hanif also gave an update on whether EE will be required to provide LTE coverage to the London Underground and the wider rail network as part of ESN.

"We are supporting the Home Office in discussions around this. It [London Underground] wasn’t formally part of the ESN scope and discussions aren’t yet formalised as a change request...,” he said. However Hanif added that London Underground could become part of EE’s scope for ESN as could Network Rail and Crossrail.

He explained that there are a limited number of locations that have been in EE’s scope since the beginning. A lot of these are not Network Rail’s and some of them are third parties including highways. Hanif said that EE is actively working on some of these as part of its contract.

The Network Rail side of things aren’t currently part of EE’s scope but there are discussions taking place with the Home Office.”

Discussing whether LTE coverage for Network Rail could be part of EE’s scope for ESN delivery, Hanif said: “There are discussions to make it part of our scope and we are actively and constructively engaging.. to see what the best solution is for the Home Office and Network Rail and for TfL and everybody else.”

EE was awarded the contract to deliver and run the Emergency Services Network (ESN) on 9 December 2015. As part of the contract EE will provide the UK's emergency services with mobile broadband connectivity. At the time of the contract award, an announcement from the Cabinet Office said that EE will:

  • Build a new, highly resilient dedicated core network for the Emergency Services
  • Build more than 500 new sites, expanding coverage in rural areas
  • Switch on low frequency 800 MHz spectrum on more than 3,800 sites to enhance rural and indoor coverage Implement the capability to afford network access priority to Emergency Services when required Implement VoLTE (calls over 4G), and new LTE voice capabilities including ‘push to talk’
  • Deploy a fleet of Rapid Response Vehicles to ensure maximum service availability Implement satellite backhaul for Britain’s most hard-to-reach areas

For more information on EE's role in delivering an enhanced radio access service for UK public safety organisations, see our ESN-focused coverage from the B-APCO Show here.

Hanif said that EE is concentrating on 4G currently but it is future-proofing for 5G, “so we can give a lot more to our customers in the next few years”. EE plans to be ready for a “5G launch” by 2020.

“We are aiming to be one of the first [MNOs] in Europe to launch 5G. I believe it will be small-scale in the beginning and then ramped up but it has to be a smooth transition from 4G.”

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