Strong synergies may bring wireless operators and public transportation
[This article appeared in the WCAI Broadband Stimulus Report]
Wireless broadband networks in public transportation have been lagging behind in the US compared to Western Europe or Asia Pacific regions. Over the last year, however, we have noticed a sharp change in attitudes, with virtually all public transit operators actively engaged in some plan, trial or initial rollout of wireless broadband technologies, and, notably, with a new sense of urgency.
Several factors have contributed to the change. First of all, wireless broadband in the public transportation sector is no longer equated with Wi-Fi Internet access for passengers. While this remains still a key application, and the one that often motivates the operators to take their first steps, increasingly transit operators look at the bigger picture of how they can use their infrastructure for a wide range of applications, including surveillance, remote monitoring and control, mechanical diagnostics, and information for staff and passengers.
A series of accidents and the planned introduction of more stringent safety requirements (e.g., with the planned introduction of Positive Train Control, PTC) has heightened the awareness among operators that the transit infrastructure has to (and can) become more secure, and easier to monitor and control remotely. Transit operators have been more successful in obtaining public funding for their efforts and have increased their commitment to internally fund some of these projects.
The broadband stimulus program is providing additional impetus to public transportation. Some transit agencies are looking directly to funds that will enable to expand their projects to reach the communities they reach. Others are establishing partnerships with service providers to share assets and networks that can serve both underserved communities, and the transportation operators and their passengers. Finally, the transportation agencies can act as anchor tenants and/or provide support to wireless operators, including backhaul capacity or cell tower sites.
The increase in ridership over the last year mostly driven by high gas prices and the increased awareness of the environmental benefits of public transport have greatly improved the perception of public transit, and have injected much needed energy towards improving the infrastructure. Along with the availability of financial stimulus funding, transportation agencies are no longer fighting to survive, they are striving to expand.
Finally, as legacy narrowband networks become increasingly expensive to operate and upgrade, and inadequate to meet the transit requirements, new standards-based wireless solutions, often operating in newly available spectrum bands like the 4.9 GHz and the 3.65 GHz band, provide much improved performance and advanced features at affordable price points.
Looking for a positive business case
Still deploying a wireless broadband network requires a huge effort and deep pockets—and fundamentally it is still a risky, unproven business proposition. The initial attempts at providing Wi-Fi access to train passengers for a fee have not proven to be the revenue opportunity that some initially expected. Few passengers are willing to pay for service, and those who do are often irritated by charges they find excessive. In this context, it has not been easy for train operators to recoup the initial network deployment costs. Increasingly, Wi-Fi access in trains, buses and ferries is free to all or some passengers, and this has led to increased usage levels.
If Wi-Fi access is free to passengers, how can transit operators recoup their costs? At first sight, free Internet access makes the situation worse. This is not the case however. Free Wi-Fi access drives up ridership and in turn this increases ticket revenues. Free Wi-Fi services cost less to provide than for-fee access and give freedom to transit operators to allocate the bandwidth needed for safety and operational applications as needed.
Making Internet access free to passengers is not sufficient to get a profitable business case. Transit operators need to make these safety and operational applications an integral part of their network to build a robust business case. These applications do not typically generate revenues, but they can drive costs down by improving the functionality and efficiency of their services, by making the customer service more responsive, and by reducing the incidence of delays and accidents, as well as the costs associated with them. Enhanced security mechanisms, QoS, and the ability to support multiple virtual networks coupled with the higher bandwidth available in the latest wireless broadband solutions make this approach not only feasible, but also cost effective.
Sharing the resources: the highway model
The need to share a single network to run multiple services and applications is not limited to the transportation sector—or telecommunications for that matter. Building separate highway systems for different types of vehicles—trucks, buses, cars—would strike most as highly inefficient. Similarly, the traditional approach of building a telecom network for a specific service or application (e.g., cellular voice, laptop data access, or SCADA) can be wasteful in networks that are not severely constrained by capacity. As a result, we expect to see infrastructure sharing grow to enable multiple operators, devices, services, and applications. At the same time, we do not expect this evolution to happen overnight, as complex arrangements are required among different players. Technology is not the barrier to infrastructure sharing. Establishing robust business models and relationships and agreements among partners represents the biggest challenge for transit operators, wireless operators, and equipment vendors.
Beyond public transport: exploring synergies with wireless operators
The scope for sharing the wireless broadband infrastructure goes well beyond the ability to integrate Wi-Fi passenger access with the safety and security applications hosted by the transit operator. Synergies at multiple levels also exist between transit operators and wireless operators using cellular, WiMAX or other wireless broadband technologies that can lead to attractive infrastructure or asset sharing models that are mutually beneficial.
At the most basic level, wireless operators can deploy, operate, and maintain broadband networks for transit operators as part of their wider area network. They can leverage the shared core network infrastructure and operational organization to offer a cost-effective proposition to transit operators, which are invariably wary to run their networks.
Moving one step further, wireless operators may host the transit networks over their licensed spectrum by either using the existing network infrastructure, or by adding new equipment to the existing infrastructure, or by deploying an independent overlay trackside or roadside network. The first approach is the one most currently used by cellular operators hosting public transit applications over their networks. As cellular operators face increasing congestion in their networks and as WiMAX operators build wider networks, we expect the last two approaches (i.e., addition of new equipment, and overlay network) to become more widespread. Transit operators do not typically have access to sufficient licensed spectrum to support their applications, and interference makes them reluctant to use license-exempt bands in high-density areas. Wireless operators are often the only partners that can provide access to licensed spectrum.
Wireless operators stand to benefit from cooperating with transit operators as well—especially with rail operators that have access to right-of-way assets. Not only railways reach all metropolitan areas; they also reach many rural and underserved communities. In both cases, access to the right-of-way can give operators access to cell sites to serve neighboring communities. In most cases, fiber is available along the railway and can provide backhaul for the wireless operators.
Installing and maintaining equipment within the railway right-of-way environment is undoubtedly complex, but the upside can be substantial, especially for wireless operators trying to reach underserved communities or for greenfield operators building new networks. In the US, the timing is also right. Financial stimulus initiatives target both the railway industry and the wireless broadband providers, encouraging both sides to deploy the needed infrastructure, and creating the right incentives to establish solid partnerships to efficiently share resources and create sustainable business models.