Commuters and travellers alike won’t ever want to do without WiFi on the Intercity-Express. It’s not surprising because, after all, passengers can take care of electronic correspondence, post something on Facebook or surf the internet during their journey. The best part is that they don’t even need to consume their own data tariff because they can connect to the WiFi on the train after logging on via the ICE Portal.
Yet the services offered by the ICE Portal go far beyond just internet access. Anyone who connects to the on-board WiFi gets access to a wealth of media content and information on various subjects, including currently around 50 ICE stops, reports and a map with the train’s current position. In addition, passengers can listen to audio books, play games or watch videos of the latest news. The integrated iKiosk operated by Axel Springer with a host of pay-as-you-go magazine content is an ideal way for avid readers to pass the time. As from 2017, cinema lovers especially can look forward to the latest blockbusters and episodes of many TV series, which will be provided in cooperation with Maxdome, and will be mostly free of charge.
Data via the network and from hard disks
Even at high speeds, access to all this content must be guaranteed. But even the massive bandwidth via the mobile phone network would barely be sufficient to offer such a comprehensive range of videos to all passengers. Maxdome is therefore providing hard disks on which most of the current offerings are stored. About twice a month, this hard disk will simply be replaced with an updated version during regular maintenance. Other content such as audio books is also stored on hard disks, which means it doesn’t need to be downloaded via the internet.
“Equipping all trains with the latest system will take about four weeks. Only when at least 90 percent of the trains have been upgraded, will we release the new content on the ICE Portal”, explains Simone Gunst from DB Long Distance. Wherever the ICE Portal is accessible, the content should always be standardised. In order to plan this better for the current fleet of 256 trains, DB Long Distance is preparing a release plan for larger updates, during which hard disks have to be replaced. Alexander Hartmann from DB Systel: “You can clearly visualise the installation required for this: there’s a server cabinet on the train, which is divided down the middle: the left side contains the technology for the operational part of the train; the right side contains the convenience features and entertainment.” The advantage of this division is that the data from different areas doesn’t continuously have to pass through a single interface. If the train is full, all passengers can still access the ICE Portal without blocking any important operational functions.
Four series, one quality requirement
Another challenge in installing the necessary systems on the 256 trains was that various ICE series travel right across Germany. The older trains have different requirements for integrating the technology than the newer models. For this reason, the project team replicated the entire infrastructure with identical components in the laboratory in order to test the functionalities there. Using special computer programs, the relevant size of the trains and quality of the cables was simulated, as well as the number of passengers using the ICE Portal simultaneously.
“It’s technically a very interesting project because there’s no off-the-shelf solution”, says Alexander Hartmann. The train is constantly in motion and exposed to fluctuations in temperature. And the technology must function under all conditions. By early 2017, 80 percent of the ICE trains will have been appropriately equipped, enabling a growing number of passengers to enjoy the advantages of the ICE Portal.
The project continues to develop
“We are developing the entire project using an agile approach based on scrum methodology. There were a few bumps to begin with, since the approach was new to everyone involved. However, we are now a fully committed team and the communication between us is excellent”, says Hartmann. And Simone Gunst adds: “It was clear to us that we wouldn’t immediately be familiar with all requirements in detail from the outset. A project like this develops over time – even in technological terms.” Short paths, fast decisions – a recipe for success also for development of the ICE Portal.
It was worth the effort, because above all, it’s all about customer satisfaction. For this reason, not only the design of the ICE Portal will be shining in a new splendour as from Spring 2017, but also the technology behind it will have been completely replaced by the “Digitalisation in the Train” programme (DiZ), for example, the cabling and the routers for mobile phone reception. “By changing provider, we can use the latest generation of hardware – so the entire infrastructure is state-of-the-art”, reveals Hartmann. That will also ensure that the internet connection via mobile telephony is even more reliable. That’s a crucial point, especially for business travellers who rely on a stable connection during their journey. And it’s another good reason to travel by train rather than by car. But those travelling for pleasure also appreciate the fast internet access.
The project is not over by a long way, however. Quite the opposite, because after all, it’s an important programme for DB Long Distance to increase customer satisfaction. The next expansion phases are already emerging. For example, it’s already being considered how shopping solutions can be integrated into the ICE Portal. There will also be additional news channels and barrier-free access will be improved. But above all, the ICE Portal will change visually. Simone Gunst doesn’t want to give too much away, just this: “It will be more modern and friendlier.” In line with the motto: comfortable travel is a lot more than just comfortable seats.