High expectations from users
To have Internet access at the SNCF station or during travel has been the passenger’s main expectation for years. If you add up the time spent at the station and the travel time itself, each user has to spend several hours each trip within SNCF structures.
This can be a valuable loss of time for business travelers on the go and a constraint for other users who find the time very long…
Such a service would also facilitate the tourist experience who could enjoy the time in the station to search for information on their destination. Thus, whether they are daily travelers, tourists or professionals, each SNCF user is now waiting for more that what wireless connection offers today …
Wifi in SNCF stations
It was planned for several years, but it was only in June 2015 that the subsidiary of SNCF ” train station & Connect” – responsible for managing and developing the network of stations – inaugurated its first connected stations. This new service has been developed and managed by the companies Nomosphère and WiFi Métropolis along with the French phone operator SFR.
Since June 25th, all train stations with more than 10 million passengers a year – 51 already – were equipped with free and unlimited WIFI. In September 2015, the 128 largest stations in France had free internet.
In order to have access to the service, users must watch an advertising page. This service is free and unlimited which allow time optimization for both business travellers and leisure travellers. Indeed, they will be able to look for information, watch a movie online or answer emails while waiting for their train.
However, based on users’ feedbacks who have been testing the service, it does not always work and the speed is far from acceptable. The objectives are not being met yet for the train company and they will have to anticipate some future changes to fully satisfy their users.
Wifi in the TGV, a difficult solution to implement …
Numerical program #digitalsncf
With the appointment of Yves Tyrode as the new director of digital and communications, the directorate president of the SNCF Guillaume Pépy assured the digital turning point of the company and wants to restore order in digital experimenting in place until then.
Guillaume Pepy said in September 2014 that “Digital isn’t a superficial layer, but it revolutionizes the profession itself”, and that “digital must be a transformation lever”.
A new numerical program called #DigitalSNCF has emerged with a budget of 450 million over the next 3 years in order to accelerate the digitalisation of the company.
This strategy encompasses a new mobile application of the company, a generalization of the high speed mobile broadband coverage, a focus on open data files and API, an investment fund (30 million euros) targeting startups and named “Digital Ventures SNCF “, and internally, a digital business transformation.
Regarding the customers expectations, the establishment of a wireless coverage remains the main expectation.
Plan : Antennas placed on the trains’ roofs
The complexity of the route and the speed of a train makes the establishment of a Wi-Fi system very difficult. Indeed, a TGV travels at an average of 300km/h, passes under tunnels, races between two rows of trees… many obstacles that deteriorate the signal reception of land based antennas.
The potential solution provided by SNCF would be to equip its trains with Wifi antennas. It will redistribute the Wifi inside the trains’ carriages. To implement this solution, SNCF has called a tender in order to equip 160 trains, including the Paris -Lyon line, Paris-Bordeaux and the Est TGV to Metz and Nancy.
However, this system has a high cost. Indeed, it is estimated at 350,000 euros per train according to Yves Tirode. Besides the cost of installation, the financing of an uneconomic service arises.
Develop 3G and 4G coverage
Considering the profitability problems and having found that most of connections were done via Smartphones or Tablets, SNCF finally decided to mainly rely on telecom operators. An agreement has been signed with Orange and SFR to facilitate the deployment of the towers along the tracks to maximize 3G / 4G coverage. The wifi should still be developed but would be an extra option for some areas.
Obvious problems for foreign tourists
This final decision should satisfy the French but could be a problem for foreign tourists. Indeed, those who have no Sim cards won’t be able to connect via 3G or 4G.
…Yet technically possible as shown with the Thalys
However, the implementation of this wireless connection is technically possible. Thalys proved it by being a pioneer in offering this service to its users.
Until today, the connection was via satellite, with antennas on the train roof that could adjust itself in real time as the train is travelling. This solution, completely free for first class passengers and charged for the others, was not satisfactory in term of speed.
The railway company has modified its strategy by setting up a new technical process to improve the quality of the service. To do this, it wants to increase bandwidth and multiply by 5 the connection speed to further satisfy its users. The installation of this new WiFi system is planned by phases, it began in summer 2015 and will be completed in mid -2016.
Besides technical constraints faced by the SNCF, the company remains optimistic and bold about the digital turn it currently takes. Its goal? Equipping all its stations and its carriages with a fast wireless connection along with a plurality of digital services associated to provide a new and optimal user experience.