The state’s plan to cover Estonian transport corridors with a fast and stable 5G internet connection has encountered a dead end and if an agreement is not reached with the European Commission, train passengers will be plagued by intermittent internet connections for years to come, the daily Postimees writes.
Lauri Betlem, CEO of passenger train operator Elron, is aware of the bad internet connection on trains, but Elron’s efforts are not enough when it comes to improving the situation.
“Passengers look at Elron to ask why our Wi-Fi is so poor and intermittent. But it is difficult for us to offer good Wi-Fi if some railway sections do not have mobile coverage to create it with,” he said.
When talking about gaps in coverage, the CEO refers to the mapping done together with Telia, which revealed that 25 more masts would need to be installed on the Tallinn-Tartu and Tallinn-Narva lines to ensure an uninterrupted internet connection on trains.
Andre Visse, chief technology officer at Telia Estonia, said that the poor internet connection on trains is not only due to the lack of masts. He described the trains as big foil cones that radio waves are very hard to push through.
“That is why it is very important to receive the signal from the roof of the train with a router and reflect it into the carriages with the help of additional devices or create a Wi-Fi network for the train with a Wi-Fi router,” Visse said.
However, Elron’s trains, which celebrated their 10th anniversary this year, currently only have a Wi-Fi connection, meaning that the 4G or 5G signals reaching the users’ smart devices are not amplified. Therefore, high-speed mobile data can only be consumed on the train if the signal is strong enough to push through the train body and windows. However, as a rule, the signal is not that strong on the railway, which winds through swamps and forests, which is why Visse recommends using public Wi-Fi for a more stable connection on the Tallinn-Tartu train.
However, a new problem occurs when using the public network. Since Elron uses 4G routers, which cannot capture 5G frequencies, to create a wireless network, the router’s capacity is insufficient to provide passengers with a satisfactory speed.
“Since the resource that can be obtained from the outside with the existing routers is quite scarce, Elron has limited the use of Wi-Fi per user quite narrowly and users may indeed be dissatisfied,” Visse said.
Elron promises that the situation will improve in the spring.
“We will install new routers that also support 5G in the trains in the winter. For the customer, this primarily means that the speed of the connection will increase,” Betlem said adding that new trains will already come with 5G routers.
The contract for the purchase of 5G routers has already been concluded by Elron and it cost 263,400 euros plus VAT.
However, Elron is not holding out hope that the change of network equipment will completely solve the internet problem and the coverage gaps.
“In places where there is no mobile coverage, changing the router will not help either. New masts would still be needed. We have talked about this problem with the operators and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications several times, and I know that both are working on finding a solution,” Betlem said.
Visse also admitted that if one wanted to get rid of coverage interruptions completely, installing new masts cannot be avoided.
“When mapping the situation with Elron, we indeed saw that we have areas on the railway where there is simply no coverage because there are not enough masts,” he added.
However, operators have not built masts around the railway, because the railway passes through areas with very sparse settlement, such as forests and swamps.
“We do not have a customer there for whom to create this infrastructure, except for the train, which passes through there a few times an hour. That is why neither we nor any other operator has wanted to build infrastructure there at their own expense,” Visse said, adding that the question is not always about money, but often, for example, about nature reserves and reaching agreements with landowners.
“It is crucial for all telecom companies that we can build masts on, for example, the land next to the railway belonging to Estonian Railways. This would certainly make it easier for us to build the mast infrastructure in question,” Visse added.
The costs associated with erecting the necessary masts are not outrageous. Telia calculates that the placement of 25 masts near the Tallinn-Tartu and Tallinn-Narva railway lines could cost around 2.5 million euros without active equipment. Telia invested over 60 million euros in Estonia last year and earned a net profit of 53 million euros.
“I suppose it is a matter of setting priorities. 100,000 euros, which is roughly the price of one mast, can also be the cost, for example, of connecting 100 households with optics. Our customers are also looking forward to this investment. Until now, we have based our investment decisions on where our investments have the greatest impact. Building masts on the land next to the railway often means that this capacity is needed there only for the moment when the train passes by,” Visse said.
In a situation where telecom companies do not want to build masts in the swamp with their own costs, Elron is looking questioningly at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications. Altogether 18.74 million euros have been earmarked from the European Regional Fund for covering transport corridors in Estonia with 5G. In order for the money to reach the railways, however, Elron will have to work hard, because initially the ministry planned to direct the money only to the highways, because more people travel there.
“Our main concern is that the railways are not left without support. Disregarding the railway corridor would be a very wrong step,” Betlem said.
In reality, however, it is not even clear whether the 5G support for transport corridors will see the light of day at all. Both Telia and Tele2 representatives confirmed that an impasse has been reached at the ministry from which there is no way out. Namely, the operators and the ministry cannot come to an agreement.
“None of the operators are interested in participating in this measure under the conditions presented to us,” Visse said.
The same was said by Tanel Petersell, head of the network and customer solutions department at Tele2. However, without the interest of the operators, there is no point in erecting the masts at all.
At that, the communication companies say that the problem is not with Estonian officials, but with the demands of the European Commission. According to the representatives of the companies, initially they had very good cooperation with the ministry: operators were involved, their suggestions were taken into account, there was constant communication, and so on. The ministry and the operators were able to agree that operator-neutral masts would be erected with EU funds in the most problematic areas, where each communication company would install active equipment at their own expense.
“This would be a very reasonable and functioning solution. Operators are already sharing masts elsewhere,” Visse said.
The state also agreed with the plan — such a support principle was also written into the document “Estonian Broadband Plan 2030”.
According to the Tele2 representative, the process started to derail from the moment when the European Commission started making its additions.
“Europe included the kind of requirements and obligations that the operators cannot fulfill. When we and the state originally intended that Estonian Broadband Development Foundation (ELASA) would build the operator-neutral masts and each company would install its own active equipment on the masts, then Europe started to demand that the masts should still be installed together with active equipment. In Europe’s vision, operators should start sharing network equipment. Since such a solution has not been used in Estonia before, the development of such a thing just for transport corridors is clearly too burdensome for operators,” Petersell said.
Visse also had criticism to direct towards the European Commission.
“A demand came from Europe that if, for example, five new masts are built on the Tallinn-Parnu-Ikla road with the help of EU funds, it should be accompanied by the obligation to provide compliant 5G throughout the entire 200-kilometer transport corridor. Since ELASA itself does not provide internet service, it would be up to the operators to fulfill this obligation. However, we cannot take on such a responsibility in a situation where we ourselves do not control the construction of masts,” Visse said.
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