On the move: Critical communications for the transport sector

Paul Ward, International Sales Director at ETELM

The pace of change in the transport sector is dramatic. PwC has calculated that global transport infrastructure investment is projected to increase at an average annual rate of about 5% worldwide from 2014 to 2025. And little wonder – a growing global population means more journeys via public and private transport, and more commercial vehicles operating behind the scenes of consumers, working in industries from manufacturing and retail to utilities.

Robust and reliable communications networks are critical to the success of transport fleets, across both the public and the private sector. And as the pressure to operate as efficiently as possible mounts, so too does the ability of those networks to intelligently and dynamically reroute vehicles at the click of a button. This means transmitting data at the same time as voice – not a new requirement in itself, but thanks to the growing role of video and high-bandwidth applications, the sheer volume of data that organisations need to be able to process and analyse has gone stratospheric. Whether we’re talking about CCTV on board trains, live mobile departure and arrival information for passengers, or behind-the-scenes applications for crew to access, the data that transport communication networks need to handle is rich, dynamic and broad. This is also something that will increase substantially in the future, with the advent of autonomous vehicles, such as self-driving buses, which will require critical connections with control systems and operators.

How, then, can the transport sector best deal with these pressures and demands? It all requires a close look at the technology underpinning the sector’s critical communications networks.

Understanding critical communications requirements in transport

First, a closer look at the demands placed on critical communications networks in the transport sector.

There are two major trends in the sector which underpin the needs of critical communications networks. First, the data used to drive dynamic decision-making – such as rerouting vehicles or assigning particular drivers to particular tasks – has become far broader and richer, and analysable in real-time. From GPS trackers to sensors which measure passengers, loads and vehicles themselves, from connected thermometers to demand-responsive services, transport providers are dealing with an extraordinary range of information, which they need to analyse and harness on the move. Do this well, and they can drive significant efficiencies and therefore resource savings. Do it badly, and they can generate enormous waste.

Second, transport providers are under greater pressure than ever before to offer cost-effective and highly efficient services. In many parts of the world, providing sufficient public transport to meet the needs of a dispersed and aging population is a major challenge. Meanwhile, climate change and the need to operate as responsibly as possible in terms of environmental impact is at the forefront of public consciousness.

In practice, this means that transport operators need to be highly responsive to changing, on-the-go demands, and highly intelligent in terms of route planning, vehicle and driver allocation. In short, they need to achieve smart transport, using dynamic data to generate tangible insights and drive informed actions.

And yet this needs to be achieved with high levels of robustness and resilience. The very dynamism of the transport sector – with vehicles constantly moving and a continuous pace of change – means that any drop-in connectivity between drivers, crew and head offices can be disastrous.

Building next-generation communications networks

What kind of communications network can drive these transformations? It’s all about taking a unified approach to voice and data.

In the past, TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) has provided an effective and efficient foundation for critical communications networks in the transport sector. It still carries plenty of powerful advantages. Specifically designed for use by the emergency services, military and government agencies, its resilience and reliability is therefore ideal for mission-critical contexts, where downtime is not an option. As such, it still has an important role to play in delivering critical communications for transport. However, as that demand for higher bandwidth and data-rich applications increases, TETRA needs supporting.

This is where LTE networks, which offer greater capabilities when it comes to video and other data-heavy use cases, come in. LTE networks enable transport operators to integrate data with their voice communications and therefore integrate smart transport technologies seamlessly into a single communications network. Here, a hybrid approach can offer the best of both worlds.

What might this look like in practice? A rail operator might use a TETRA network for its core voice communications, ensuring, for example, that drivers can communicate consistently with stations and centralised staff. An LTE broadband overlay could offer high bandwidth data communications for real time passenger information apps – keeping users updated on journey progress – and security and surveillance systems.

As the demand for mission critical LTE services increases, and as the standards mature, the availability of LTE frequencies for private users, such as Transport Operators is likely to increase too. Having the ability to seamlessly combine their secure, proven TETRA services with new broadband applications in a single core network will be a major advantage.

The transport sector has mobility at its core and its approach to mission critical communications must move at the same pace in order to deliver both reliability and technical innovation.