Mind the connectivity gap: rolling out 3G on the Tube

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Politicians are calling for voice and data connectivity on the London Underground to support business and bring it in line with networks in other cities but operators are not keen

For many in the UK, being connected to the internet 24/7 is a commonplace. But for the 1,107 million people per year who travel on the London Underground, their mobiles become little more than gaming and music devices during the commute.

Some would say this is to be expected. After all, tunnels in the London Underground are 200 feet below street level. However, technology doesn’t stand still for long. Anyone who has ever used underground railways in cities such as Berlin, Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo will know data and voice connectivity is available both above and below ground and, in most instances, during transit.

So why is the UK so far behind? Moves to provide data connectivity on the London Underground began in June last year – ahead of the Olympics – when Virgin Media began offering free Wi-Fi in 120 stations as part of a free trial.

Virgin says the service is “incredibly popular” with commuters and, to date, more than 800,000 people have registered. In September the service saw one million individual online interactions take place in a single day – proving the demand is there.

In January, Virgin’s free trial ended. Of the major networks, only EE and Vodafone customers continue to receive the service as a value-add.

Customers of O2 and Three currently have to pay up to £15 per month extra to access data underground (in stations only).

Three told Mobile News it had nothing to announce regarding Wi-Fi on the Tube, while O2 said its customers will have free access later this month.

Delays

According to Conservative member of the London Assembly Gareth Bacon, Transport for London (TfL) is to blame for the lack of connectivity on the Tube.

Bacon said uninterrupted mobile connectivity is crucial for companies whose staff have to travel to visit clients or work from home to remain competitive.

He accused TfL of “dragging its feet” and giving “weak” excuses for the lack of coverage on the Tube.

He added while in the past people may not have wanted the hassle of having a phone with them at all times, it is now a necessity in business.

“If London wants to attract new business, it needs to facilitate modern business with complete high-speed connectivity,” Bacon said.

The figures appear to back this up. Aside from the increased convenience of being able to contact the office and clients without interruption, a report by management consultancy company ATKearney, commissioned by Vodafone, found the UK’s ‘internet economy’ was worth £82 billion, or 5.7 per cent of GDP, in 2012.

The author of the 2012 report, ATKearney partner Mark Page, said mobile connections accounted for 16 per cent of this and the contribution of mobile devices is increasing “rapidly” as smartphone penetration rises.

More mobile connectivity has resulted in increased revenues from e-commerce (currently worth £45 million in the UK), according to the report. On top of purchases, mobile advertising increased by 121 per cent between 2009 and 2010 to reach £83 million, Ofcom has found.

ATKearney also found of the £37 billion UK internet value chain (content rights, online services, technology enablers, connectivity and user interface) connectivity services, including mobile, represent the largest market with 35 per cent, or £13 billion. Connectivity revenues include those from broadband subscriptions as well as mobile contracts, however.

The Vodafone-commissioned report found that for every £1 spent on internet connectivity, £5 in value is created.

Blame

These are arguments Mayor of London Boris Johnson is all too aware of. In September 2010, Johnson reportedly pledged to “bash heads together in the mobile industry” to ensure infrastructure was put in place underground to deliver 3G and Wi-Fi on the Tube before the London 2012 opening ceremony in July last year.

Discussions were held between the UK’s major operators, French engineering company Thales (which maintains the Tube’s communications network) and Chinese manufacturer Huawei, which submitted a £50 million bid to provide the equipment – around half the estimated total cost of roll-out.

According to inside sources, the parties were on the verge of agreeing a deal that would have seen Johnson’s Olympic ambitions fulfilled but it fell through because of the cost of the project.

Full article in Mobile News issue 540 (June 3, 2013).

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