A live TV service delivered over an IP network on a high-speed train would have been unthinkable five years ago, writes Nomad Digital's Chief Technology Officer, Alf Pilgrim.
Today though it is a reality and last month many passengers using the Austrian national train operator ÖBB’s service got first-hand experience of just how good it is, while watching live broadcast TV coverage of UEFA’s Euro 2016 contest.
This proved an exciting concept for the rail market and ÖBB received numerous positive social media references and enquiries across Europe from interested parties about how they managed to provide such a ground-breaking service. Clearly it is a differentiator.
ÖBB genuinely wanted to offer its passengers a real step-change in rail travel experience and therefore pushed the technology boundaries to take passenger experience to the next level. Leveraging a networked platform has enabled them to provide truly innovative solutions and applications to their passengers. And that required real vision – and collaboration!
We know that WiFi has had a positive experience on passenger satisfaction and is now high on passengers’ priorities. A rise in passenger satisfaction correlates with increased ridership and revenue. Farha Sheikh, the technical manager for the Department for Transport (UK) stated in issue two of our customer newsletter, Platform – “revenue from passenger journeys is already nearly £9bn – and we have some limited evidence that WiFi on trains increases passenger journeys. It’s a small increase, but it equates to quite a lot of revenue, so the case looks quite good.”
The department is investing in its future. And across Europe and North America many of our customers feel the same way having introduced or upgraded a WiFi connectivity platform.
What we are sensing as a business is that forward-thinking customers, such as ÖBB, are realising that a networked digital train is a huge enabler – providing a range of passenger services which may be built upon if the underlying capabilities are future-proof.
Previously if you wanted live TV on trains you would have had to use satellite and reception would be interrupted in tunnels or other areas out of range. A direct internet connection is vulnerable to buffering, leading to a less satisfactory experience. And with live major sporting tournaments or music concerts you don’t want unpredictable interruptions.
To achieve a constant service required not only technological innovation and expertise, but a team that had truly bought into the ethos of collaboration. With ÖBB we had developed a partnership over several years of working together. Before this project though we hadn’t worked with ORF (the Austrian state broadcaster and media content provider) but our knowledge and experience helped create a strong partnership. Trust is built from sharing and also from demonstrable expertise. We were able to demonstrate a deep insight and solutions-focus through our years of innovation. Nomad has been at the forefront of the ICT and wireless connected arena for rail for more than 14 years. In 2002 we were the pioneers helping to kick-start the technology. Over the years we have refined the sophistication of our offer and product but our pioneering ethos has remained constant throughout.
Our technological innovation was crucial to success. Through our range-topping, next-generation 3500P platform, introduced across ÖBB’s international Railjet fleet, we provided a fully upgraded connectivity service and integrated media server. All 51 ÖBB Railjet trains were equipped with faster router technology, upgraded access points and switches and new-generation modems, offering a high-capacity on-board application hosting environment.
Travelling through tunnels, valleys and less populated areas sometimes means the mobile signal is weak, making it challenging to establish a consistent internet connection. To overcome this and provide customers with the best possible performance, our system aggregates the mobile communication signals of several mobile providers to present a single network to the applications and users on the train. In order to allow for a continuity of the live streams, innovative buffering software is installed on the ÖBB Railjet trains and network operating centre. These inject a short lag in the transmission and make it possible to compensate for route sections with bad reception, for instance tunnels - thus ensuring continuity of service. It means that the users themselves don’t see an irritating ‘buffering’ indication; all management is performed in the background.
In addition, the TV distribution system uses ‘one stream to the train, multi access’ technology to give presentation on TV screens or on passengers’ own devices, while using the minimum of bandwidth for the transmission.
Working together with ÖBB we implemented a bespoke integrated passenger portal, which facilitates the delivery of a full media and infotainment platform with rich content. The high bandwidth delivered ensures that other travellers less keen on using the live TV experience can also get an excellent internet or on-board portal service. Passengers have the flexibility to move across the different services seamlessly. Flexibility is key to customer satisfaction and there is something for everyone in this solution.
The portal also provides a Passenger Information System which gives passengers fully synchronised and integrated real-time journey and service information direct to their personal device. And excellent train connectivity unlocks other potential applications such as the operator’s ability to invest in cost savings through Remote Online Condition Monitoring and Driving Advisory System. These applications provide information which can significantly reduce maintenance and operating costs and improve reliability.
Live TV then is actually just one part of a holistic end-to-end solution, albeit an extremely advanced and pioneering one. With a networked train there are a variety of capabilities and applications to choose from – whether entertainment, passenger information services or fleet maintenance. But the end driver is the same – the opportunity to really enhance passenger satisfaction. ÖBB really believed in that and believed in our ability to help them deliver it.