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FMRCS: Get Aboard the 5G Train

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The 5G train is arriving on platform two, slowly but surely. This new standard for rail communications will overleap the cellular generations — from 2G to 5G — but isn’t expected to start to arrive until 2025, and won’t fully replace the current specification until 2030. 

In fact, the full specification for the specialist 5G standard isn’t likely to be completed until the end of 2022.

2G still rules the rails

The venerable 2G cellular rail standard Global System for Mobile Communications–Railway (GSM–R) is still rolling along in Europe, China, India, Africa, and Australia. The software and hardware vendors, however, suggest the early digital cellular specification will start to be replaced in 2025, as a new 5G variant intended for rail use is due to be released.

According to the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA), GSM–R facilitates the communication between train drivers and traffic control centers by providing specific features such as group communication, location–dependent addressing, priority levels, railway emergency calls, and shunting communication. The GSM–R system can enable transmissions between a train and a control center at speeds of over 300 mph.

The trouble is that GSM–R is a technology that’s getting pretty long in the tooth. The standard is sufficient for limited voice communication since the 4 MHz bandwidth available can support multiple 200 KHz channels. The GSM–R specification uses 876 to 880 MHz for downlink communications. The uplink uses 921 to 925 MHz.

The maximum data transmission rate of the narrowband GSM–R is a measly 9.6 kbit/s, making the system unsuitable for real–time data communications. GSM–R really can’t handle anything more than sending SMS text messages.

A 5G Future

The Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS), which is based on the standalone version of the 5G NR spec, is expected to be completed by the end of 2022. The niche specification will have access to harmonized frequencies at 900 MHz and 1900 MHz. This is to ensure that train operators’ rail command and control systems will remain interoperable when the transition from GSM–R to FRMCS takes place.   

“In the past… operators, they had a basic type of communication that is more for safety rail application, that is GSM–R,” said Miki Shifman, CTO and co–founder of the Israel–based railway cybersecurity startup Cylus.

“When they wanted to introduce new types of applications, like IoT predictive maintenance [and] security telemetry CCTV… they would add more modems to a train. They would add more types of communication. This would lead to problems for the drivers like your Wi–Fi not necessarily working as you would expect it to work,” Shifman said.

“The reason for that is the fact that one part of it was standardized, the others were bespoke, right?” Shifman added.

Communications security is a major issue for Cylus and the rail industry as a whole, the Shifman explained. The elderly GSM–R standard uses an outdated security technology, the A5/1 steam cipher, which was first broken in 1999. Shifman describes GSM–R as a “security hole”.

Shifman sees this changing with the arrival of the secure and reliable FRMCS system in 2025. “The fact that you can actually use a single link will spur so much infrastructure, as well as improve the throughput and the latency for [all] types of applications. It will unlock massive opportunities for operators and passengers,” he said. 

Nokia claims that FMRCS will lead to simplified rail maintenance, more remote control of station lighting and CCTV, and — eventually — automated train operation, among other advances. Notably, other hardware vendors, such as Ericsson and Huawei, are equally keen to promote FMRCS.

No wonder! GSM–R covers over 180,000 kilometers of train tracks in Europe alone. Vendors must be eager to get their hands on the contracts for the 5G technology that will replace GSM–R.

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