TRAI nod notwithstanding, Cabinet approves spectrum for Railways

The Railways had sought 5 MHz of wireless spectrum for sending real-time data from trains, which would enhance passenger safety; TRAI had floated a consultation paper on whether the transporter should get the spectrum and is yet to give its nod for the demand 

Published - February 09, 2024 10:41 pm IST - New Delhi

In discussions with TRAI, Railways had said that it wants additional spectrum for implementing several safety features. 

In discussions with TRAI, Railways had said that it wants additional spectrum for implementing several safety features.  | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

A day after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) floated a consultation paper on whether Indian Railways should be able to get — largely free of cost — 5 Megahertz of wireless spectrum for carrying real-time data that would enhance passenger safety, the Union Cabinet in a surprise move on Thursday approved the proposal, even though TRAI’s response was pending. 

The Indian Railways had sought additional 5 Mhz of paired spectrum, free of cost, in the 700 MHz band in July last year, a month after the Balasore incident that left 296 persons dead and nearly 1,200 injured. 

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“As per our understanding, based on reports, the Cabinet has decided to reserve this 5MHz spectrum to keep it out of auctions, and it has not been allotted to the Railways as of yet,” a TRAI official told The Hindu

In the past, when the Railways had received spectrum grants, for which they only needed to pay an annual royalty without bidding for the airwaves like telecom operators, the data transfer capacity was not sufficient to allow trains to continuously upload video footage for safety purposes. The video feeds were instead “dumped” at railway stations with a WiFi connection. 

The Railways in a written communication to Department of Telecommunications (DoT) said that it is important to capture large-scale data and videos from moving trains on a real-time basis. “Dumping at a stopping station, which has high-capacity WiFi, shall not serve the objective,” the Railways observed. 

The Railways further said that during exigencies, networks of telecom service providers get choked, thereby adversely affecting relief and restoration operations. 

Because the Railways was only granted 5 Mhz of its original demand for 15 MHz in discussions post the Balasore tragedy, Railways had again asked for an additional 5 MHz of paired spectrum in the 700 MHz band. 

In discussions with TRAI, Railways had said that it wants additional spectrum for implementing several safety features such as the Modern Train Control System, Train Collision Avoidance System, signal aspect in loco cabs, and emergency mobile communications. It had also highlighted other advantages that the spectrum allocation could bring, such as increased speed, augmenting train’s running capacity, passenger security, CCTV network-like live feed at security control centres, video surveillance, video analytics, asset reliability, etc. 

In consultation which is open for comments till March 6 and counter-comments till March 20, the TRAI is assessing whether additional spectrum should be assigned to the Railways, and whether it will be sufficient to meet requirement of different rail networks, and also what should be the spectrum valuation and charging methodology. 

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However, The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea, and Reliance Jio, had in the past opposed free handouts in the 700 MHz band, from which this spectrum has been set aside for the Railways. That band is used for commercial telecom operations around the world, COAI said, and a significant chunk of it had already been assigned to the Ministry of Defence. Further assignment to non-telecom use cases would leave the spectrum availability for technologies like 5G “grossly inadequate,” the COAI argued.

The TRAI had then recommended that the Railways get a smaller slice of the spectrum than it had asked for, and that the DoT consider allowing telecom operators to also use the spectrum without interfering with trains’ own communications. Trains need limited land spaces to send this data along their tracks, and any given spot on the track doesn’t need all the spectrum the Railways has at its disposal, unless there is a train passing through.

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