Traincomms News from BWCS

Huge Trackside Network Deal Edges Closer …

Monday 13 Jun 2022

A major investment in the UK’s trackside wireless and cable networks has moved a significant step closer. According to recent press reports, two large investment groups have each been cleared to bid to partner Network Rail in its £1 billion drive to upgrade around 16,000km of trackside cable network and add new wireless masts.   

The two groups are Virgin Media (bidding with Nokia and Jacobs) and Neos Networks (bidding alongside Cellnex). The winning bidder will be expected to upgrade the trackside infrastructure and build around 250 new mobile masts to help tackle 5G “notspots” for commuters.

Traincomms Conference Programme here…

Network Rail announced the proposed massive improvement plan one year ago. At the time, it said it would seek a private investor to help upgrade 16,000km of trackside cable network and that the deal could net the company over £1 billion. The ultimate goal it says, is to improve reliability, performance and safety for its frontline workers and passengers. However, the move could also help to support the rollout of gigabit broadband and 5G mobile across the UK.

NR’s current trackside data infrastructure, which still consists of many hundreds of miles of legacy copper, mixed with fibre-optic cabling, is certainly in need of an upgrade. Some six years ago, the company seemed all set to sell its cable links or enter into a joint venture to build them up. However, despite several large telecoms companies coming to the table, no agreement was reached and the plan was put back on the shelf.

It is understood that NR will retain ownership and access to the cables, but the new investor will have access to spare capacity. The chosen investor will also assume responsibility for upgrading the cables and replacing the remaining copper lines with fibre optics as well as rolling out new wireless masts alongside the train-tracks.

Both of the bidders named so far, together with any others that may be cleared to bid, will have try to calculate whether access to the sprawling network can justify the large price tag, especially given the need for so many costly upgrades. So far, neither Neos nor Virgin have been put off by either the likely cost or the size of the task ahead.

It has been pointed out that in a wider context, the arrival of a cash-rich, telecoms-savvy partner for Network Rail could ultimately help boost the roll out of 5G in Britain. It is also expected to support the UK Government’s £5 billion Project Gigabit broadband rollout (nationwide gigabit coverage by around 2030) and the wider industry-led £1 billion Shared Rural Network (SRN) project, which aims to extend UK geographic 4G mobile coverage to 95% by the end of 2025.

Boosting track-side wireless coverage and the emergence of new technology and systems to improve WiFi on board trains, will all be discussed by train operators, rail administrators and suppliers at this year’s global WiFi on Trains Conference - Traincomms 2022.  

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