Will Finnish 4G Really Boost On-Train WiFi Services?

(14 Jan 2020, BWCS Staff)

Finnish national railway company VR Group is negotiating with mobile network operators for the supply of better internet connection in trains. According to reports in the press, an improved service is expected to be offered from next month – using 4G signal along all routes.

However, some commentators are sceptical about the level of change passengers should expect to see. For one thing, the coverage requirement was in the original terms of the 4G-licences, which stated that the new service must cover the state-owned tracks. Yet, the licences failed to stipulate field strengths or bandwidth requirements. Leaving some to argue that the commitment is too vague.

The mobile network operators themselves: DNA, Elisa and Telia maintain that the move to cover railways requires significant investments in infrastructure. “Upgrading all this infrastructure to get the same kind of data services as are available in urban areas nowadays is, in practice, an unreasonably big endeavour.” Jarkko Laari, Radio Network Director at DNA told the Finnish broadcaster Yle.

Another mobile operator told the Finnish press “We could put millions into track-side, and still not make people satisfied. With the same money spent somewhere else we could fully satisfy thousands of people. We have to prioritize.”

Given the fact that the licence stipulates coverage of 4G across the entire rail system, the operators may yet find themselves in hot water if the Finnish Telecoms Regulator, Traficom, starts to receive complaints from passengers about poor connectivity.

Currently, many VR passengers are less than satisfied with the on-board internet connection available in trains. Due to the limited signal, the service often breaks up when a train runs into the countryside. Also, VR limits the bandwidth available to individual users on its trains. As a result, passengers can’t download movies. According to the company’s own figures, 27% of passengers currently deem the mobile network and resultant WiFi service to be poor, while only 31% consider it to be good or very good.

For its part, VR is fed up of carrying the can for a patchy WiFi service, when it is most often the lack of a reliable mobile connection that is at fault. It remains to be seen how much effective notice the operators have taken of Traficom’s stipulations for full 4G rail coverage by February 2020.

VR is in the midst of plans to improve its rolling stock. The company is pouring 250 million euros into buying new trains. By 2026, new carriages are set replace 34 Sm2 units of the type produced in the 1970s. The new fleet of trains will be able to reach speeds of up 200kmh - instead of the current limit of 120kmh which the ageing rolling stock can manage. VR is due to kick-start the procurement process later in the year. The new trains will run on the inter-city routes in Southern Finland: from Helsinki to Kouvola, Tampere, Riihimäki, from Lahti to Riihimäki, Kouvola and from Kouvola to Kotka.

On-train WiFi services, trackside networks, the growing market for passenger WiFi and on-board entertainment will be the main subjects of BWCS’s WiFi on Trains Conference later this year. For information on speaking and sponsorship opportunities at the 2020 event, please contact .

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