Icomera demonstrated the powerful capabilities of IcoShape, its data traffic management tool, as part of a deployment for UK rail operator Northern.

As a result of IcoShape’s roll-out, Northern has achieved an average 20% reduction in its data consumption, while improving the overall passenger experience for its Wi-Fi users.

Project Background

Utilising Icomera’s X-Series connectivity platform, the Northern Intelligent Train (an evolution of the Digital Train) involves a range of integrated connected applications which improve the passenger experience, offer enhanced operational efficiency, and provide better safety and security.

For each live Intelligent Train, Icomera acts as Northern’s single point of contact for all onboard systems.

The Challenge of Ever-Growing Data Demand and Cost

Northern’s passenger Wi-Fi service works by utilising the available cellular capacity in the geographical areas its trains pass through, in order to deliver data to those on board. With over 340 trains travelling on its network, and an average of more than half a million users connecting to its Wi-Fi every month, data usage (and, in turn, costs) could quickly begin to add up. What’s more, this data expenditure was largely outside the transport operator’s control, given that the provision of Wi-Fi to rail passengers is mandated in the UK.

Pre-pandemic, as a result of its data usage, the transport operator was expecting to quadruple its data spend. Of course, when Covid hit and lockdowns were enforced, Northern saw a sharp wind-down in data use – But, as lockdowns eased in the summer of 2021, and passengers began to return to public transport, data consumption started to rise steadily again.

Northern also noticed a shift in how its passengers were using the onboard Wi-Fi service; more and more passengers were travelling for leisure, while the shift to hybrid office / home working meant that business travellers were seeking to use the onboard Wi-Fi network in different ways (e.g. for video conferencing).

Delivering a high-quality Wi-Fi service was therefore more vital than ever for overall passenger satisfaction levels in the “new normal”; however, due to the finite bandwidth available from cellular networks, the onboard Wi-Fi connection could quickly become “clogged up” when large numbers of Northern’s passengers were seeking to use the service simultaneously. This could result in a less than optimal Wi-Fi experience for its travellers, if left unchecked.

Given the substantial amount of data that it handles and the rising associated costs, Northern sought a solution which would allow it to (a) control and mitigate its data spend, while (b) still being able to offer the best possible experience for its passengers connecting to the onboard Wi-Fi.

An animation showing a stream of uncategorised traffic passing into the IcoShape filter from the left. IcoShape then categorises the data. On the right, a prioritised traffic stream, throttled traffic stream, and then blocked traffic stream then appear

IcoShape detects and classifies traffic across the total system. This allows transport operators to then prioritise, throttle and / or block service types using pre-set priorities

A Successful Trial

To help address these two aims, Icomera deployed its IcoShape solution as part of a competitive trial which Northern ran in 2022.  

By categorising network traffic, IcoShape allowed Northern to gain a deeper understanding of how data was being used, and to take the appropriate action. It was possible to monitor and analyse whether data spend was coming from passenger services or from operational systems, for instance.

Northern was able to configure Wi-Fi usage rules using a web-based graphical interface integrated within ICONIC, Icomera’s cloud-based monitoring software tools. Data traffic streams could be prioritised, throttled, or blocked depending on their level of importance, to better manage data usage and costs. For example, traffic for critical onboard systems such as digital video surveillance or real-time journey information could be prioritised, while still delivering the best possible Wi-Fi for Northern’s passengers.

Importantly, IcoShape’s deployment resulted in no detrimental impact to passenger satisfaction levels; in fact, Northern saw an improvement in the overall passenger experience because it could provide a fairer, more reliable Wi-Fi service for all (as opposed to a small number of passengers “hogging” the available bandwidth).

Northern experienced a 10x return-on-investment using IcoShape, as well as achieving an average 20% reduction in its data consumption.

* Data comparing statistics in months August 2021 to March 2022 (IcoShape Deactivated) and months April 2022 to October 2022 (IcoShape Activated)

Fleet-wide IcoShape Deployment

As a result of the trial’s success, Northern selected Icomera to roll-out IcoShape fleet-wide; this was a simple task given that Icomera’s connectivity solution allows for over-the-air deployment, in the click of a button.

Icomera continues to work closely with Northern to leverage IcoShape’s different use-cases, and to align the tool’s feature roadmap to the transport operator’s business goals.

In a further sign of the project’s accomplishments, Northern has championed IcoShape as a traffic shaping solution when participating in a UK-wide task group set-up to investigate services and best practices that can be implemented to create a more efficient railway network.

A screenshot of IcoShape's graphical user interface within ICONIC, Icomera's suite of cloud-based management tools. In this image a graph is shown and data traffic is broken down by type (e.g. video streaming, music, social media etc.)

Screenshot of IcoShape’s graphical user interface (GUI) within ICONIC, Icomera’s suite of cloud-based management tools

What Northern Say:

“IcoShape has allowed us not only to better maintain our cost portfolio, but also to increase the customer benefit through delivering a more reliable Wi-Fi service across our network.”

Marc Silverwood, Digital Trains Project Manager, Northern

What We Say:

“Northern continues to be one of the UK’s most forward-thinking rail operators. We’re thrilled that, thanks to our close working relationship, it has been able to reap the rewards of being an early adopter of innovative Icomera solutions, such as IcoShape.”

Peter Kingsland, SVP UK, Australia & Asia, Icomera

Read our IcoShape Brochure