Mobile network operators in the UK have been urged to help put an end to internet gaps on the country's railways with new antenna technology that could improve mobile connectivity for thousands of passengers.
The UK government has offered £200,000 in funding to operators who can develop a new prototype antenna that can be attached to existing infrastructure on Britain's railways.
It is hoped that new equipment housing small cells and wireless antennas can be attached to electrified overhead line equipment (OLE) installed over roughly a third of Britain's railways, similar to techniques successfully used in Austria to improve railway connectivity challenges.
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Telecoms service providers have been called on to work with Network Rail to come up with innovative designs for a trial phase of the project.
Grant Shapps, the UK's Transport Secretary, said the project could pave the way to a "railway of tomorrow" while putting an end to a problem that has blighted rail passengers' journeys for years.
"It is just not good enough that passenger's mobile connectivity experience is still poor, blighting our efforts to work, shop and communicate on everyday journeys," said Shapps.
"By harnessing innovation and updating existing infrastructure, we can build the railway of tomorrow and find affordable solutions to improve travel for passengers. I urge telecom operators to match our ambition and we can commit to working closely together to design equipment and move forward in the next stage of this exciting trial."
The new programme coincides with new research commissioned by the UK government's Department for Transport (DfT) and published by independent watchdog Transport Focus, which found that passenger's experience of internet connectivity on trains fell well below their expectations.
Data gathered by researchers suggested that roughly 96% of the data traffic generated while passengers travelled on trains was carried over mobile network connections, while only around 4% was carried over the on-board Wi-Fi.
The average internet download throughput of on-train passengers' connections was a measly 3.3Mbps for 3G and 4G compared to 1.4Mbps for Wi-Fi connections. In comparison, consumers generally achieve 6.8Mbps and 10.6Mbps respectively across the country.
Rather than investing in additional and expensive track-side masts, research funded by the Department for Transport found attaching antennas to existing infrastructure could effectively boost speeds while reducing costs.
Mobile operators are now being encouraged to develop technology for the next phase of the trial, which will test how antennas can be safely applied to a functioning railway. It is hoped a suitable prototype can be trialed by March 2021.
Charlene Wallace, Network Rail's director of passenger and customer experience, said: "We are keen to work with government and train and telecom operators to deliver more consistent and reliable mobile coverage that improves passengers' journeys in an efficient and affordable way."
Other recent attempts to make UK railways more passenger-friendly include a £9.4m project launched by the DfT in mid-June aimed at bringing in such innovations as 5G Wi-Fi, hydrogen-powered freight trains, seat-swapping apps and self-heating concrete slabs to prevent passengers from slipping on icy platforms.