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On-board connectivity and IoT: where we’ve come from and what’s next

Wi-Fi has changed the way we live our lives immeasurably in the last 10 years – a trend that shows no sign of slowing. Vicki Sloan and Paul Vaclik of Nomad Digital take a look back at how Wi-Fi has improved connectivity and how the Internet of Things is advancing smart transport.

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi has very quickly become an integral part of people’s daily lives. We’ve come to expect it at home, work and even in public areas. We are used to being and staying connected, and rely on Wi-Fi to carry out everyday tasks such as checking emails, finding directions and posting on social media.

The history of Wi-Fi is long and interesting. In 1971, ALOHA net connected the Hawaiian Islands with a UHF wireless packet network. Then we jump to 1991, when NCR Corporation with AT&T Corporation are credited for inventing the first wireless products, under the name WaveLAN.

In 1997 we see the first release of Wi-Fi for consumers when a committee called 802.11 was created. This sparked a development in prototype equipment (routers) and in 1999, Wi-Fi was introduced for home use1.

How far has Wi-Fi actually come in 20 years?

Wi-Fi performance continues to improve and it’s one of the most important technologies in use today; it’s smart, simple and economical. To think we can now get on a train and stay connected while travelling at up to 150mph is quite frankly amazing. The idea of on-board connectivity was talked about for a long time, train operators and builders knew it would be the next big thing to increase passenger travel and satisfaction by providing a service that enables working and socialising.

However, Wi-Fi is more than going online to check emails and browse the internet. It has become a driving force when it comes to connecting devices, sharing data and exchanging information. This can now be referred to as the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) – a network of physical devices, vehicles, home appliances and other items that are embedded with electronics, software and connectivity enabling them to connect and share.

WiFI.org said: “IoT is one of the most exciting waves of innovation the world has witnessed, and its potential has only just begun to emerge.”

Wi-Fi and connectivity on trains

Reliable connectivity has become an ‘expected norm’. When people are away from their home or office, being constantly connected is simply expected. Digital technology is ubiquitous, covering all aspects of our everyday lives, so why should it stop when we step on to a train?

The ‘Intelligent Train’ – a concept pioneered by Nomad – is a shared and secure network infrastructure to which all on-board systems and passenger devices may connect and interact. IoT is the driving force behind Nomad’s platform, allowing on-board devices to communicate with each other, and with the outside world, whilst maintaining a full separation between passenger-facing applications and those systems responsible for the safe operation of the train. Through the adoption of industry standards, Nomad allows applications and services to collect and exchange data, meaning everyone is more connected than ever before.

Top 10 Wi-Fi facts

  1. Dial-up modems may still be a recent memory, but wireless internet is only a few years away from its 30th birthday
  2. 71 per cent of mobile communications flow over wireless internet
  3. Wi-Fi is the biggest communications tool in the world
  4. ‘Wi-Fi’ was a play on the term ‘Hi-Fi’ (High Fidelity), but it doesn’t actually stand for anything
  5. The term Internet of Things (IoT) has actually been around for almost 20 years
  6. Some of the strangest Wi-Fi connected devices include walking sticks, umbrellas, shirts, water bottles and cutlery
  7. In 2016 there were approximately 7 billion people living on the planet and over 23 billion devices connected to the Internet – an average of three devices per person
  8. By 2020 it is estimated there will be over 50 billion Wi-Fi connected devices worldwide being used by 7.8 billion people – more than doubling the number of devices per person
  9. Wi-Fi connected homes are becoming the norm – there are currently around 150 million smart homes worldwide
  10. Right now, 3.7 billion people are using the Internet – that’s over half the world.

Understanding Wi-Fi on trains

Naturally, with different requirements and different uses in a unique space, Wi-Fi on trains is different to the Wi-Fi we have at home.

Home Wi-Fi needs to support a family’s phones, tablets and laptops and perhaps a few smart TVs and other devices. A train, meanwhile, is a metal box with several hundred people in a confined space, so Wi-Fi solutions need to deal with a far greater density of connections. However, getting everyone connected is not the biggest challenge; passengers want to access the public internet, which requires a very high-capacity connection from the train – which itself is travelling very quickly through many environments, from cities to remote rural areas and tunnels.

Imagine a train travelling at 300km/h passing mobile phone base stations that are a kilometre apart. That means that connections could be swapping between base stations every 12 seconds with connection quality that is changing all the time. Providing several hundred passengers with a stable internet connection in those conditions requires some really clever solutions.

Connectivity is key to meeting expectations

The technologies behind mobile connectivity are evolving very rapidly, as are people’s expectations. It is not that long ago that a home internet connection would struggle to deliver a website with a video. Today, however, everyone expects HD video and streaming services on their phones. Solutions must be able to continuously evolve to take advantage of advances in technology including 3G, 4G, dedicated trackside networks, and in the near future, satellite, 5G and beyond. Passengers expect to be able to work, have up-to-date information and be entertained while they travel, so the need for these types of solution will only continue to grow.

These solutions need to do far more than just connect passengers though. Trains are rapidly evolving into a fast-moving data centre attached to a complex network; a train can contain hundreds of networked devices – for example, sensors, cameras and displays – and run many software applications. Modern solutions must be able to manage all of those devices, and the related software and data, effectively and securely. In this way, they will make journeys more efficient for operators and passengers alike, and improve the passenger experience.

IoT is constantly reminding the rail technology industry to push the boundaries of what’s possible. The capabilities of on-train connectivity are endless, and with the way things are going, it is incredibly exciting to see what the future holds.

Reference

  1. CableFree: Wireless Excellence

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