UK Government under Pressure to Legislate for Higher Train Wi-Fi Speeds

Louise Haigh, Labour’s digital economy spokeswoman, has pushed the UK Government to commit to fast rail broadband through legislation. According to reports in The Guardian newspaper, the MP for Sheffield Heeley is planning to table an amendment to the UK’s Digital Economy Bill, which is due to return to the House of Commons floor next week.

The move came during a debate in the UK parliament over the government’s stipulation that all train companies bidding for rail franchises in the future must include Wi-Fi as part of their pitch. In the discussion, Matt Hancock, the government’s Digital Policy minister, admitted that minimum speed required on those bids is only 1Mbps per passenger. This, he said, would be ‘enough for basic web browsing, basic e-mail and social media activity’.

However, critics pointed out that this speed level means that a single video would take hours to download and that even opening e-mails with large attachments will be a lengthy business. According to some industry observers the low threshold would make the service at least ten years out of date, despite the government’s commitment to enable commuters ‘to keep up with work’.

In the government’s defence Hancock pointed out that the minimum requirement is set to be boosted by 25% a year and that some franchise bidders are already exceeding this threshold. For example, Abellio says it will provide up to 100Mbps per passenger by 2019 on the East Anglia franchise.

In February 2015, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced plans to oversee the rollout of free Wi-Fi on trains across the UK from 2017. Speaking at the time he stipulated: "The government will invest nearly £50 million to ensure that rail passengers are better connected." The investment was set to benefit passengers with four rail operators, including TSGN, Southeastern, Chiltern and Arriva Trains Wales, covering more than 500 million journeys a year.

Despite this commitment, passenger groups argue that Wi-Fi connections on many routes remain patchy, while several operators do not offer the service at all. Haigh’s threatened amendment to the bill next week, should it make the cut, would force train operators to commit to higher download speeds as well as making Wi-Fi available across the UK rail network.

The spread of Wi-Fi on trains around the world as well as the development of new on-board wirelessly-supplied services will be the main focuses of next year’s Wi-Fi on Trains Conference – Train Communications Systems 2017. For information on all the sponsor and speaking opportunities please contact BWCS.

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