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Why railways are already on the move to FRMCS

railways blog

Market support for today’s widely used GSM-R technology will end around 2030. And IDC research reveals that most railways have already begun their transition to Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) — even if they’re only at the planning, trialing or piloting stage. Among the operators interviewed and surveyed in early 2023, almost 80 percent now have pilots in place, have plans to start implementation, or are currently identifying their best path to FRMCS.


What’s driving the FRMCS trend?

It starts with railways’ growing recognition that digital transformation can provide crucial business advantages — and that 5G/FRMCS will play a central role in this evolution, chiefly because of its advanced mobile communications capabilities. As a result, rail operators will invest in the technology as a means for achieving strategic business outcomes. According to IDC findings, they are aiming at four primary, interdependent goals that can be enabled by FRMCS, including: more efficient operations, higher capacity utilization, enhanced safety, and revenue growth.

The second factor shaping the move to FRMCS is timing. Today, 91 percent of railways are still using GSM-R for their critical communications. So how will they make the necessary switch to a new technology? IDC has learned that they’re typically choosing to adopt FRMCS in phases, instead of waiting for a “big bang” switchover in 2030. That’s because operators understand that delaying the transition until market support is switched off is highly risky. It could have potentially disastrous results — including significant downtime and an enormous bill for a total overhaul of their infrastructure. 

A proactive, phased adoption, on the other hand, offers several advantages. First, it allows thoughtful, critical planning to start as soon as possible, looking at all the layers of the communication architecture. That way, organizations have time to consider how FRMCS will be integrated into existing plans and simultaneously be coordinated with the company’s longer-term strategic priorities. Yet it also permits a rapid implementation of the earliest phase, such as a small-scale pilot, to help railways begin learning how FRMCS applications actually work in their unique business environment. Then, as later phases are rolled out over the months and years ahead, their new knowledge can be incorporated.

Railway industry FRMCS investment plans

Why the next few years are a time of high opportunity for FRMCS planning

Because GSM-R is an aging technology, it has less flexibility and interoperability than newer offerings. Railways clearly understand the disadvantages and risks of delaying the transition of critical communication infrastructures that rely on GSM-R. However, FRMCS should not be viewed only as a simple, straightforward replacement for GSM-R due to obsolescence. 

Instead, rail operators can gain the most from this advanced technology by remembering one crucial point: It opens powerful opportunities to transform how they operate their business. And that makes the next few years a perfect time to explore these possibilities.

For example, railways that are eager to act on this principle are already evaluating which new use cases they want to develop. And the following choices are the winners in the three FRMCS use case categories: 
•    For critical communication, use cases for voice and group voice are first on the list, followed by ECTS L1/L3 and
virtual coupling. 
•    For performance communication, use cases for CCTV are leaders, followed by predictive maintenance and telemetry.
•    For business communication, ticketing use cases are number one, following by public information/address and
onboard infotainment.

To make these kinds of developments a reality, however, railways also need to invest in the equipment, capabilities and competencies needed to embrace FRMCS. In other words, the right planning is needed as an effective guide to FRMCS adoption, but investments make the actual transition possible. Over 60 percent of railways that participated in the IDC research are making those investments in 2023 and plan to continue through the next two to three years. 

One other major element is essential for this process. Railways want to work with reliable, innovative technology partners that understand their industry. In fact, both product reliability and supplier reliability are leading criteria when rail operators choose a connectivity supplier, along with the supplier’s speed of innovation. In addition, they expect technology partners to offer advisory services that help them get the best from FRMCS — as well as solutions that can accelerate the transition process.

Railways’ investment plans for the next 2-3 years

To learn more

For more detailed information on these topics, download the full IDC report, “Empowering Next-Generation Railways with 5G/FRMCS.” As an industry leader in FRMCS developments, Nokia is making this important market research widely available to help railways consider the benefits of 5G-enabled FRMCS, as well as deployment options. Nokia is working at the forefront of FRMCS, actively participating in industry associations and standardization bodies, as well as collaboration and trials with major railway operators and their regulators.

Fai  Lam

About Fai Lam

Fai is an experienced marketing director at Nokia, currently focused on the role of communication networks in advancing the future of rail technology. He provides essential expertise in how these networks can be a key enabler for railway digitalization — and how the railway industry can make the transition from GSM-R to FRMCS.

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