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Elron to install new 5G routers on its trains in 2024

An Elron passenger train.
An Elron passenger train. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Passenger rail carrier Elron has been having trouble with internet and cellular coverage on its trains in more remote areas. Even though the company plans to replace the routers on all its trains in early 2024, new cell towers would also be needed to improve coverage.

Those who often take the train know that cellular coverage for calls and mobile data is not even for the whole journey. Elron CEO Lauri Betlem said that passenger satisfaction over lack of a permanent internet connection is considerable and the search for solutions has taken years. Elron will start installing 5G routers on its trains from the new year.

"The current tech is old as the routers were installed when the trains first arrived in Estonia a decade ago. But the new routers will only help where cell coverage is available, to boost data speeds. They will not create coverage where there is none," Betlem explained.

The company has said that making mobile data available on sections that do not have it would require installing 25 new cell towers.

Betlem said that on-board Wi-Fi is one thing, while lacking cell coverage in the case of a potential accident would complicate rescue efforts.

But Elron does not set up cell towers and depends in this matter on telecoms. Tele2 CTO Tanel Sarri said that erecting cell towers is expensive and operators are not rushing to do it without subsidies.

"We need to keep in mind that because 5G arrived a little late in Estonia, efforts to install the new technology are in full swing, meaning that other areas besides rail corridors have not been covered yet and operators are investing heavily," Sarri said, adding that measures that suit the interests of all sides should be found for the railroad.

Mart Laas, deputy head of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication's communications department, said that Estonia has €18 million from the European Regional Development Fund for building communications towers along rail corridors. Work is underway on a measure to use the money.

Laas said that Estonia is trying to secure a state aid permit from the European Commission, which will also provide the support conditions. He added that funding might be available starting in the second half of next year.

Lauri Betlem said that Elron has also considered using Starlink. But the company does not currently offer devices certified for use on the railroad, which is why cooperation remains impossible for the time being.

"We are prepared to install such devices as soon as they become available. But the other problem is that the service is considerably more expensive than mobile internet," Betlem said.

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Editor: Mari Peegel, Marcus Turovski

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