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6 December 2022

EU expands WiFi and 5G options for air and public transport systems

The European Union (EU) has just made two superficially related announcements about regulation of wireless in transport, one being to approve use of 5G in planes, the other to make unlicensed 5 GHz bands available for WiFi in vehicular transport, primarily cars and buses.

The second announcement was rather occluded by the first, which has the greater potential impact in Europe, where aviation has largely recovered from its pandemic decimation with 30,000 flights a day, 80% of which are internal to the continent, now operating.

The European Commission has unveiled plans to approve 4G and 5G usage in planes, which would initially apply to lower-altitude flights and provide an alternative to the (often expensive) passenger WiFi services that have existed in some airlines since about 2008. At higher altitudes, the mobile signal will need to be boosted by picocells that connect and re-route calls, texts and data between the aircraft and the ground, creating a small in-flight network.

In these picocell networks, spectrum in 5 GHz or above will be used to keep clear separation from the cockpit communications that run in the 4.2-4.4 GHz band. The 5 GHz band will be available for road vehicles in the EU by the end of June 2023 but there is, as yet, no proposed timeline for in-air 5G, which still needs to gain final approval after consultation with stakeholders and votes in the European Parliament.

By contrast with aircraft 5G, the availability of WiFi on public transport is beginning to look almost redundant as 5G at last provides the capacity and speeds required for most consumer applications. The main reason for wanting WiFi connectivity while travelling now is to connect tablets and laptops, the majority of which still lack cellular connectivity. At least that is the case in areas where cellular connectivity is now of high quality, which admittedly excludes some rural parts of Europe.

But if cellular connectivity is really lacking, WiFi on buses is of limited use since it relies on the mobile network for backhauling. The only reason WiFi works on some remote train lines is because small cells have been deployed alongside the track. For example, in the UK, train operator Southwestern Railway and specialist telecom provider Evo-rail – a subsidiary of transport operator FirstGroup – announced recently that a 45-mile (70-kilometer) stretch of its main line into London from Basingstoke would be the first to benefit from the roll-out of new rail-side 5G masts for delivery of “superfast” onboard WiFi.

On trains then, WiFi definitely has a future, but this is less the case for buses, on which there is lower demand for tablet and laptop usage and where either cellular connectivity is too poor to backhaul on-board WiFi, or is good enough to provide the connectivity passengers need by itself. That appears to be the case in London, where Transport for London (TfL) has declined to invest in WiFi on buses on the grounds that there is good enough cellular connectivity in the city to serve passengers on the relatively short journeys involved.

When it comes to underground metro networks, WiFi has been quite widely deployed in London and elsewhere, but the experience has been patchy because connectivity is usually confined largely to stations and platforms, without enabling continuous Internet access while browsing. Such services have had some success in keeping people connected for intermittent messaging and texting but are now being superseded by the roll-out of cellular connectivity through tunnels in London, New York and elsewhere.

In reality, the European Commission’s amended decision on 5 GHz frequency bands is of more interest to the automotive industry for use of WiFi in cars, where it will be attractive for passengers accessing infotainment on laptops and tablets for some time to come, again hitched to cellular networks for backhauling.  This does raise the question of whether the great advance of cellular connectivity in the 5G era will provoke a swing towards incorporation of eSIMs or iSIM in laptops and tablets.

There are signs of this happening, notably from India where 5G roll-out is only just getting underway. One factor there is that fixed broadband connectivity is patchy and therefore already LTE networks are often the primary medium of Internet access from homes in some rural areas. According to CyberMedia Research, the tablet PC market in India grew 22% quarter-on-quarter for July to September, driven by demand for 5G-capable devices. There are signs of similar trends elsewhere, if less dramatic. That Indian growth has been stimulated by the country’s long-anticipated 5G spectrum auction in the summer of 2022.

There are naturally substantial regional differences in demand for WiFi access on the move. In the USA there is a significant rural broadband deficit, which means that some homes lack adequate broadband access over either fixed or mobile services. This prompted Jessica Rosenworcel, chair of regulator FCC, to propose recently that federal funding should be made available to equip school buses with WiFi, potentially closing the country’s “homework gap” in areas where daily bus commutes for schoolchildren exceed an hour. The idea, in theory at least, is that children can get homework done on the bus, especially if Internet access at home is poor.

Again, though, this falls down in the absence of adequate cellular backhaul connectivity during the journey. That is unless satellite connectivity is available as an alternative. Elon Musk’s SpaceX spotted an opportunity and at the start of the current academic year in late August 2022 started piloting a program to make its satellite Internet service available to some school buses in the US.

“Many students who need the most support live miles from school, with lengthy commutes but no connectivity,” said SpaceX in its filing about the project to the FCC. The company added that many lower income students in rural areas lack any significant internet access at home.

SpaceX exhorted the FCC to approve federal funding to support provision of school buses with WiFi, which Rosenworcel had been advocating after all. Awarding such funding will be as much a political as a technical decision.