Mind the Wi-Fi Passenger Experience Gap

Chris Bruce, managing director, GlobalReach Technology

Have you ever used Wi-Fi on a commuter train service? 

If you do so daily, have you wondered why you have to click the T&Cs each time you connect?  Have you ever been bumped off the Wi-Fi service on your train and had to connect to a different service on the platform as the train stops at a station?  And, has your smartphone ever been confused as to which signal (SSID) to connect to when two trains from different TOCs (Train Operating Companies) are at adjacent platforms?

am a daily business commuter to London, and I find all these things frustrating and as I work in the Wi-Fi sector I also know that the experience for me and millions of others is unnecessarily complex.  It is relatively easy to fix these issues, and through Passpoint Wi-Fi roaming, create a revenue stream that will compensate the TOCs and fund a connected passenger journey.

There is no technical reason why a passenger moving from one train service to another cannot register once and be connected seamlessly throughout their rail journey. Passpoint solves all these problems and provides a more secure connection via encrypted radio link from handset to Wi-Fi access point.  Both the technology standards and supporting hardware are available now and businesses in other industries, like retail and hospitality, are already seeing the benefits of a better, and more secure, user experience.

The passenger experience, and that of the rail operator, can be improved by making the Wi-Fi service better. This was the essence of the recent submission that GlobalReach made to the Williams Rail Review, the UK Government’s rail six months industry review.

Make Rail Wi-Fi Better

The UK rail network is a patchwork of different stakeholders, made up of Network Rail and the different TOCs, station retailers, contractors, maintenance companies and many others.  By adopting the Passpoint standard, simple roaming agreements can be put in place that let passengers register for Wi-Fi just once and move from one Wi-Fi network to another. They can connect using a profile stored in their smartphone’s SIM card or via the train operator’s loyalty scheme app.

Passengers connect to Passpoint services by downloading a one-time provisioning file to their device. This then automatically configures Wi-Fi settings and encryption.  Once the device is provisioned with a Passpoint credential, this one-time sign-up then gives passengers an automatic connection whatever train, route or rail operator they are using.

When commuters like me return to the station or train, their devices are remembered and they automatically connect day after day, without the need to log in again. It’s a better experience made possible by a mature Passpoint technology standard, which has been available since 2014.

A passenger engagement channel

While better Wi-Fi may not help trains to arrive on time, it will improve passenger communication about journey information, delays and cancellations. General messages can be sent to the devices of all Wi-Fi users on a platform or train to supplement PA announcements, and allow them to plan alternatives, reducing stress in times of service disruption. It may also occupy passengers for entertainment or work.

With this ability to target communications at a granular level, TOCs can increase the transparency and relevancy of their passenger service announcements, and so improve satisfaction.

GlobalReach-ScotRail-CenturyLink-Rail-Wifi
GlobalReach passenger Wi-Fi for ScotRail with CenturyLink.
Better Wi-Fi security

Imagine that you’re on the move, working or communicating away from your home network. You’re potentially vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks.

Passpoint delivers higher levels of user security and legal compliance with GDPR and security responsibilities. This happens by authenticating the subscriber’s connection with credentials provided by their mobile operator on the user’s SIM or via online signup (OSU) validation.  Hence TOCs can meet all CSP (Communications Service Provider) and ISP (Internet Service Provider) regulations for providing the service.

Some Wi-Fi operators authenticate users for seamless login with the MAC (Media Access Control) addresses of a previously connected device.  However, communications between the device and the access point are unencrypted with this method. Moreover, many of the handset operating systems updates randomise MAC authorisation on many devices for other security reasons, so returning users may have to login each time.

Passpoint overcomes this issue by using encryption between the Wi-Fi access point and the user device and is, therefore, more secure.

The upside for train operators

Better Wi-Fi is not just better for travellers. With a Passspoint service in place, rail Wi-Fi operators may also have a new way to secure income from the Wi-Fi roaming and mobile offload agreements, to help fund the network improvements.

Passpoint makes using Wi-Fi more like a mobile network. This seamless user experience, combined with the better in-carriage coverage that Wi-Fi offers, makes these services more attractive to mobile carriers, aggregators and other telco service providers. They’re in high demand as a way to quickly grow their coverage footprints and enable offload.

By implementing roaming agreements, passengers can benefit from secure and automatic Wi-Fi access whatever their route or with whichever TOC.  Rail operators can still retain their brand identities by keeping their existing SSID, portal and user experience by using a Passpoint roaming feature called RCOI. This is a Roaming Consortium ID which allows all parties to roam across different Wi-Fi networks.

This is good news for rail companies. Third party partners can roam or offload data onto the rail Wi-Fi network for a fee, and these fees could contribute to funding and upgrading to a world-class connected passenger journey.

The future of rail connectivity

Upgrading Wi-Fi authentication and policy management across railway infrastructure (trains, stations, platform and depots) can enhance the passenger experience and improve satisfaction levels.  Passpoint makes this possible. A collaborative approach between rail companies can make this happen.

Reimagine my daily commute with an automatic Wi-Fi connection. As I reach the station and move from platform to train, my phone is already connected no matter whether I switch to a different rail company.  I don’t have to login again and again, and I have a way to stay in touch, work, or keep my family entertained.

This relatively small and simple upgrade to existing rail Wi-Fi infrastructure can open the door to huge improvements to the passenger experience and to passenger satisfaction.