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UK digital strategy

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Regular readers of Rail Engineer will now be familiar with the digital rail strategy, but how does this fit with the wider digital strategy for the UK? The recent publication of the government’s Digital Strategy paper provided an opportunity to learn why and how digital technology should be used in industry and society, together with the government’s commitment to the digital rail strategy.

By 2020, the volume of global internet traffic is expected to be 95 times that of 2005, and connected devices will outnumber the global population by nearly seven to one. In the UK, fixed Internet traffic is set to double every two years, while mobile data traffic is set to increase by between 25 and 42 per cent per year.

The UK’s digital infrastructure must be able to support the increase in traffic, providing coverage with sufficient capacity so that data can flow to meet the requirements of modern life. Data transmission will be treated as the fourth utility, with industry and society benefiting from the improved connectivity.

This will increase innovation and productivity across the economy, bringing significant economic rewards. Independent research suggests increased data speeds alone could add £17 billion to UK output by 2024. In a CBI survey, 81 per cent of companies said that they see more reliable mobile connectivity as essential to their business.

Over 80 per cent of small medium enterprises now have access to broadband download speeds of at least 30 megabits per second (Mbps), up from 68per cent coverage a year ago, but more needs to be done. Business connectivity continues to lag residential connectivity, whilst eight per cent of small businesses, mainly in rural locations, do not have access to broadband speeds of 10Mbps or above.

Digitisation challenge

Each business has its own specific digital needs, but there are four core digital activities that most businesses need to do to remain competitive:
» Maintain a web presence to communicate to customers, stakeholders and suppliers;
» Use the cloud – for example business continuity, collaborative working;
» Digitise back-office functions such as payroll, logistics and asset data;
» Sell online – where appropriate to the type of business.

Many businesses are still a long way off adopting these digital processes as a core part of their operations and the UK is lagging behind competitors such as France and Germany.

Fibre roll-out

In December 2016, government issued a Call for Evidence on full fibre roll-out and will shortly publish its findings, but the Digital Strategy indicates that publicly owned or funded networks, such as the Network Rail Fixed Telecoms Network (FTN), offer the potential to increase fibre connectivity. These will be investigated to see how these fibre networks can be opened up to provide vital ‘backhaul’ infrastructure, which could help to increase business and residential connectivity in hard-to-reach areas.

Photo: Shutterstock.com

A new Business Connectivity Forum, chaired by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, will bring together business organisations, local authorities and communications providers to develop specific solutions to the issues faced by businesses in accessing fast, affordable, reliable broadband.

The spring budget confirmed that commercial options for improving broadband coverage on roads and rail would be developed. In some parts of the country, in remote rural areas, the railway telecoms copper cables have, in the past, been used to provide public telephone service to premises adjacent to the railway. Such connections were outside any formal regulatory, commercial or license arrangements, and were probably arranged locally and pragmatically by engineers who knew that technically and logistically it was the right thing to do.

Now there is a railway fibre network with spare capacity in these areas, it appears that there may be the opportunity to regularise and expand such connections for the benefit of communities. It is hoped that this does not result in the sale of the Network Rail Telecom (NRT) network, as this is vital for digital rail. Rail privatisation resulted in the break up and over-commercialisation of the BR telecoms network, and it has taken over 15 years and a multi-million pound investment to recreate a modern telecoms network ready for digital rail.

Included in the spring 2017 budget was £200 million to fund a programme of local projects to test ways to accelerate market delivery of new full-fibre broadband networks. These will include bringing together local public sector customers to create enough broadband demand in order to reduce the financial risk of building new networks. Full-fibre broadband connection vouchers for businesses were also confirmed, to increase the take-up of services where new networks are built.

In addition, funding will be provided to directly connect public sector buildings, such as schools and hospitals, which is intended to provide fibre closer to more homes and businesses. Opening up existing ducts and other public sector assets will also allow new fibre to be laid more cheaply.

A new National 5G Innovation Network was announced that would trial and demonstrate 5G applications. The first phase will invest up to £16 million in a 5G facility with the technology to run the trials. Telecommunications regulator Ofcom has been tasked to ensure that the UK has a regulatory environment ready for 5G.


Users of the UK’s train networks expect good connectivity on the move. Wi-Fi is being rolled out on trains across the UK, and it is forecast that, by the end of 2018, 90 per cent of passenger journeys on Department for Transport-franchised lines will benefit from Wi-Fi. In new rail franchises, train operators will be required to tackle ‘not-spots’ on their routes and deliver high-speed connectivity to ensure Wi-Fi is fast and reliable across routes serving the majority of their passengers, who will then be able to send emails, browse the web and social media, and make calls using ‘Wi-Fi calling’.

Most main lines are already covered by 3G/4G LTE provided by Mobile Network Operators (MNO). Train operators need to provide each train with an efficient Mobile Communications Gateway with Local Area Network (MCG-LAN) in order to connect MNO services to Wi-Fi access points throughout the train. RSSB RIS- 0700-CCS – Rail Industry Standard for Internet Access on Trains for Customer and Operational Railway Purposes – provides requirements and guidance for train operators in order to meet their franchise commitments.

It is a pity that the Digital Strategy did not include MNOs improving coverage on rail routes, however where an MNO ‘not-spot’ is identified, connectivity could be improved by deploying fixed Wi-Fi points. These can be located at stations, on electrification gantries, or on GSM-R masts. With a station located every 14km on average, this may be a relatively cheap way of improving rail broadband connectivity. Such installations need to be carefully deployed in order not to interfere with operational infrastructure and this is something Network Rail and train operators could possibly develop and implement together at local level, so long as they involve competent engineers within NRT.

The Digital Strategy also announced plans for investment in Wi-Fi networks in public buildings including museums, schools, hospitals, universities and offices in city centres, so rail is therefore not alone in investing in Wi-Fi. Ofcom recently announced more spectrum for Wi-Fi and plans to consult further.

Mobile coverage on UK motorways is high, with 97 per cent receiving voice coverage from all MNOs. But significant improvements are needed to ensure there is a reliable connection across other major roads, not only so that travellers can make a call while on the move or in an emergency, but also as a means of enabling applications from real-time traffic alerts to emerging technologies such as connected and autonomous vehicles and smart motorways.

The Emergency Services Mobile Communication Programme is seen as an important part of this process. Opening up this infrastructure for commercial use, as far as possible, may extend coverage across the UK, including improving commercial coverage on roads.

At the 2016 Autumn Statement, the government committed an additional £450 million to roll out digital signalling technologies on key routes on the UK rail network. The introduction of digital technologies, such as in-cab signalling and intelligent traffic management systems, will become increasingly important to deliver much needed capacity and improve connectivity. For the rail passenger, real-time management of traffic will reduce disruptions and enable services to respond to peak times of demand.

Public and private investment in digital signalling over the next 10 years will aim to strengthen UK leadership in a growing market, worth over £30 billion globally by 2020. By 2019, nearly 200 trains with digital signalling will run on Thameslink and Crossrail. Industry leaders will be used to advise the Secretary of State for Transport and to introduce best practices from other industries that have successfully delivered similar digital transformation.

Smart ticketing

By the end of 2018, government wants every passenger to have the choice of travelling on trains with a smart ticket. Digital tickets and payment through smartcards, mobile phones and contactless will offer customers more convenience and flexibility in how they buy and use tickets. Smart ticketing can also help to provide better passenger information, for example during disruption, and automatic passenger compensation when trains do not run on time.

Prior to the further roll out of smart ticketing, digital technology will help to make passengers aware of their right to claim compensation. The rail industry will be encouraged to develop and deliver modernised ticketing by the setting of challenging requirements for bidders in future franchising competitions. A further £80 million was allocated in the 2016 Autumn Statement to accelerate the rollout of smart ticketing, including season tickets for commuters in the UK’s major cities, and £150 million has been committed for multi-modal smart ticketing to be rolled out across the North of England.

Improved real-time information will help passengers make better decisions about their journeys. Opening-up data will spur innovation and help create apps, products and services. Rail industry data will be made more open and of better quality in areas including reservations, reliability, planned disruptions, routing guides, and GPS train locations. This will enable the development of apps and services that will improve the customer experience, increase accountability and produce innovative solutions to problems the rail industry faces.

Digital for society

The strategy reinforces the commitment, across government and the public sector, to harness the potential of digital to radically improve the efficiency of public services. This will enable organisations to provide a better service to users, and at a lower cost.

In education, for example, the government will address the barriers faced by schools in regions not connected to appropriate digital infrastructure. The strategy confirms investment in the Network of Teaching Excellence in Computer Science to help teachers and school leaders build their knowledge and understanding of technology.

Police officers will be able to use biometric applications to match fingerprint and DNA from scenes of crime and return results, including records.

Data is a global commodity and businesses must continue to compete and communicate effectively around the world. To maintain the UK position at the forefront of the data revolution, government will implement the General Data Protection Regulation by May 2018. This will ensure a shared and higher standard of protection for consumers and their data.


Cyber security

Not surprisingly, cyber security forms a part of the Digital Strategy. Making the UK the safest place in the world to live and work online is a priority, and a safe and secure cyberspace is an essential requirement for an inclusive, prosperous digital economy. This will give people the confidence to be part of the digital world, as well as giving the UK a significant competitive advantage.

To secure technology, data and networks from the many threats they face, and to keep our businesses, citizens and public services protected, government will require the National Cyber Security Centre to provide a single point of contact for companies requiring cyber security, particularly those that form part of the critical national infrastructure.

A new approach of Active Cyber Defence will be introduced, using the skills, knowledge and technical expertise of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) working with the country’s ISPs (internet service providers) to provide a new level of protection for British cyberspace. To ensure that the UK has a pipeline of cyber skills that meets its current and future needs, a new national after-school programme for the most talented students, cyber as well as apprenticeships, and adult retraining will be introduced.

It is recognised that creating a safe and secure cyberspace for children requires some particular actions. So, to stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online, companies will be supported to roll-out family-friendly filters to all broadband customers and to introduce age verification controls for access to online pornographic material provided on a commercial basis in the UK.

Digital benefits

The benefits of digital are widespread. Digital transformation can make every business in every sector more productive. A recent survey of 1,000 UK-based businesses found digital capabilities helped boost revenues by 4.4 per cent and reduce costs by 4.3 per cent. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with a strong web presence grow, on average, more than twice as quickly as those with minimal or no presence, export twice as much, and create twice as many jobs.

While UK companies have similar levels of internet access and web presence as those in other European countries, they are less likely to digitise their back-office functions than their peers in other countries. Fewer than 20 per cent of UK enterprises use software to share information across the organisation, compared to 40 per cent in France and more than 55 per cent in Germany, while only 22 per cent of SMEs in the UK use any form of e-commerce, so we need to up our game.

From marginal changes such as a restaurant adopting online bookings, to wholesale business transformation, the ambition is for all UK companies to be able to realise the efficiency gains offered by adopting digital ways of working. If successful, this could play a crucial role in closing the UK’s productivity gap with the best of other countries.

Written by Paul Darlington



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