Better internet connection in trains requires 25 new cell towers

An Elron train (photo is illustrative).
An Elron train (photo is illustrative). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Elron passenger trains have been struggling to offer a decent Wi-Fi connection when passing through rural areas. Some people who frequently travel between Tallinn and Tartu prefer to take the coach because buses have a strong connection.

Elron CEO Lauri Betlem told ERR that the problem is as important to the company as it is to passengers.

"We will start installing new 5G routers in our trains this fall. While this is sure to improve coverage, it will likely remain patchy in some areas that simply lack base stations," Betlem said.

Internet service provider Telia's CTO Andre Visse said that Elron trains use mobile data and there is interference due to the way they're built. "They are aluminum trains which mobile signals find hard to penetrate, and then there are the selective glass panels. Conditions for the tender for new trains include mobile data signal repeaters and a high-quality Wi-Fi solution," he said.

Wi-Fi works on trains because of receivers placed on top of cars and an antenna of sufficient power. However, the Wi-Fi connection is still weak in areas where cell towers that feed it are few and far between.

Visse said that erecting cell towers in the middle of nowhere just doesn't pay. "It is clear that ISPs have no motivation to construct the necessary infrastructure in these areas, and public support would be needed. It is very expensive. Erecting a single tower costs around €100,000," he said.

The cell operators are also waiting for the EU-funded 5G transport corridors measure to kick off.

But it is not just a matter of cost-effectiveness, Visse remarked. "Constructing towers on plots next to Estonian Railways corridors is crucial for us. It would make things easier for us in terms of securing permits and tower infrastructure. Unfortunately, it hasn't happened so far," he said.

Elron estimates it is missing 25 towers in areas surrounding the railroad.

Lauri Betlem hopes these will be constructed in the next two years. "It would be sensible to cover transport corridors, irrespective of settlement density. We are making sure there is mobile coverage along highways, but, for some reason, the railroad has been sidelined so far."

Elron has also considered using the Starlink system of satellite internet, but the prospect remains unrealistic at this time, Betlem suggested.

"There are no certified devices for use on rail infrastructure. We have seen on the news how a Starlink antenna was installed on top of a train in Ukraine, and we would probably do something similar in an emergency, but we cannot use uncertified and untested devices in everyday situations. There is no ready-made Starlink service on the market either. We would very much like to see one, as it would probably solve the problem for a long time. However, we cannot be sure there will be one or when," Betlem said.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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