It sounded too good to be true, and it was.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced back in August that it was looking for partners to trial 5G along the Trans-Pennine rail route between Manchester and York, as part of a £35m scheme to improve connectivity on trains.
Some eyebrows were raised at the news, given that on many trains you still can't even load a tweet, and our scepticism has now been validated with the news that that part of the project has been cancelled.
The overall scheme, called the Trans Pennine Initiative (TPI) has three parts, of which the 5G train trial was part 3:
- An LFFN [local full-fibre networks] focused element, deploying high capacity fibre along the Trans Pennine route from Manchester to York, to provide backhaul capacity for open access points along the route, and test a commercial model for fibre deployment on the railways. It also provides a high capacity inter-connection between the Manchester and Leeds Internet Exchanges, thereby strengthening critical internet infrastructure within the Northern Powerhouse.
- An upgrade to the existing Network Rail test track (the Rail Innovation and Development Centre, RIDC) at Melton Mowbray, to enable it to trial new technologies including 5G.
- Passive infrastructure including masts along the Trans Pennine route, to enable radio trials of high quality passenger connectivity on trains.
However, a new update to the scheme quietly drops part 3:
The CFI [call for interest] sought feedback on, and interest in, testing passive infrastructure, including masts, along the Trans Pennine route, to enable radio trials of high quality passenger connectivity on trains.
Although there was interest in the concept of the trial, the market was not prepared to participate on the basis of the available funding (covering equipment provision only) and that following the trial a supplier could be required to remove their equipment.
Allow us to translate that into English for you.
The government expected telecoms companies to jump at the chance to go to all the effort and expense of installing 5G equipment and maintaining service along the Trans Pennine route, for which they would be paid... the cost price of the physical equipment. And nothing else.
If anyone was still interested at this point, the next bit killed it: the government could order the company to take all the equipment out again after the trial, at further unpaid expense. Wow, what a deal.
It sounds like – as with the infamous Android-only Brexit app and in fact Brexit in general – the big cheeses thought "of course they'll do what we ask, we're the government 😎" and then received a resounding "nope!"
The statement goes on to say that actually the whole thing turned out to be a way bigger faff than anticipated:
In parallel, it has become clear, following the completion of a detailed site survey and planning work by Network Rail along the route, that the construction costs and complexity of the radio infrastructure required along the Trans Pennine route are significantly greater than expected. The timetable for delivery of the radio trial would also be significantly impacted by these factors. Having assessed alternative options, DCMS has concluded that there are no credible means to deliver the planned passenger trials to a suitable standard within the available budget and within a reasonable timeframe to inform wider policy development.
As a result of these factors and the results of the CFI, DCMS has taken the decision not to pursue the planned build of radio infrastructure along the Trans Pennine route.
According to ISPreview, the actual costs turned out to be about £25m, which is more than double what had been earmarked for part 3. Whether that money will become available to the other two parts, which are still going ahead, is unclear.
On the bright side, laying fibre cables between Manchester and York is apparently going well, and might actually finish in May as planned. Perhaps one day we really will be able to work on the train like we tell our bosses we do.