Subway passengers in Glasgow may soon be able to get a signal on their smartphones underground – thanks to trials of pioneering fifth generation mobile connectivity.

Subterranean connectivity moved a step closer with a 5G experiment offering trackside-to-train reception for travellers

As part of the project, researchers installed a ‘pop up’ network using next generation technology to provide track-to-train connectivity between Buchanan Street and St Enoch stations.

The private and public sector consortium, led by network giant Cisco, explored the potential for delivery of personalised advertising content using Augmented Reality (AR) mobile applications enabled by 5G connectivity.

A custom 5G standalone connectivity solution allowed the train carriage to connect to the trackside network, and an on-train Cisco wi-fi network was used to connect users, who were simultaneously served by the trackside network.

Two 5G ‘infotainment’ service applications streamed AR advertising content to devices when the users scanned a QR code, while an AR application enabled passengers to interact with virtual objects overlaid on top of real-world objects.

The final live trials in March were carried out on a dedicated train which drove round the Glasgow circuit continuously during normal passenger service. Triallists used the infotainment applications on handsets and headset devices.

The applications allowed users to virtually try on and buy sports goods from fashion outlets while travelling in the tunnels, which has never been possible before  

Researchers say that their dedicated private train network successfully demonstrated the live operation and potential of ‘infotainment’ in an underground rail environment.

The collaborative project between University of Strathclyde, Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, Glasgow City Council, and enterprises Ampletime and Sublime, was funded by the UK Government Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS).

Professor Sir Jim McDonald, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Strathclyde, said: “The University of Strathclyde has vast experience of developing private 5G networks to create affordable connectivity solutions in both urban and rural locations, as well as hosting the Scotland 5G Centre in our Technology and Innovation Centre at Strathclyde.

“We are delighted to be building upon our strategic relationship with Cisco, and our other industry and UK Government partners, on this exciting transport project.”

Matt Warman, digital infrastructure minister, said: “Losing phone signal when hopping aboard an underground train can be a pain in our connected age, so I’m delighted that our £200 million 5G scheme has explored giving passengers superb quality connections to unlock new digital experiences, brighten up journeys and boost businesses.”

Dr David Crawford, 5G engineering director from the University of Strathclyde, said: “5G RailNext has shown that 5G mobile technology is well-suited to providing track-to-train connectivity inside tunnels for underground railway systems.

“The deployed infrastructure created a unique test environment, and by testing 5G in these technically challenging contexts, we have a much clearer idea of what is feasible and how consumers can be reached with personalised and engaging information and entertainment content, delivered through new forms of interactive media.”

Valerie Davidson, SPT acting chief executive, said: “SPT has been delighted to support this project in the Subway, and be part of this international collaboration to look at the viability of running 5G technology within our challenging Victorian tunnel system.

 “Following the success of the trial, we are now keen to look further at the potential benefits for our passengers to enhance their journey experience on the Subway. With the majority of Subway commuters now using a smartphone, there is increasing demand and a growing expectation on good connectivity to be accessible everywhere, especially as 5G continues to roll out.”

Peter Shearman, Cisco’s head of innovation for UK and Ireland, said: “The rail and metro environments present a market with limited penetration of advertising, marketing, and content services to date, but they have a high-volume, repeat-visit customer base, and our user trials have demonstrated that having the ability to explore and ‘try’ products could be appealing to passengers travelling on trains.

“Interactive media and AR-based advertising could help to improve passenger experience, enable new marketing channels, and create new revenue streams for advertisers, media owners, and operators.”

5G RailNext was part of the UK Government’s £200 million 5G Testbeds & Trials Programme, which aims to maximise the opportunities for UK businesses, including small and medium sized enterprises, to develop new 5G applications and services for both domestic and global markets.

Demand for data and connectivity in the UK continues to grow, with more than 80 per cent of adults owning a smartphone in 2020 and spending an average of almost three hours a day online.

This demand puts pressure on service and infrastructure providers to enable suitable connectivity.

The groundbreaking project was in partnership with a programme running in the Seoul Metro system with South Korean partners ETRI. This UK-South Korea collaboration aimed to show the potential of 5G in some of the most challenging environments.