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TfL likely to tender for 4G on the Tube

Transport for London is planning to undertake preliminary work on installing 4G mobile networking services on the London Underground in the near future

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Travellers on the sub-surface sections of the London Underground rail network may be able to access 4G mobile voice and data services in the not too distant future.

According to the Financial Times, Transport for London (TfL), along with London mayor Sadiq Khan, have already had discussions with a number of telecoms operators about the feasibility of deploying 4G mobile infrastructure in the tunnels, and may put out a tender request soon after the General Election on 8 June 2017.

TfL did not explicitly confirm or deny the news, but in a brief statement a spokesperson confirmed that installing 4G was on the organisation’s agenda.

“We are keen to offer full mobile phone coverage for our customers. The introduction of this would need to be commercially viable and would follow engagement with staff and customers,” said the spokesperson.

William Newton, Europe, Middle East and Africa (Emea) director at WiredScore, which provides tools for property buyers to assess in-building network coverage, said: “While a number of stations along the TfL network already offer users Wi-Fi services, full mobile phone coverage will enable users to fully make the most of their time on the tube.

“With such vast lengths of time on the underground begrudgingly spent by commuters across the city every day, there’s no question this will be a very welcome improvement to TfL’s service.

“This is the latest in a number of government and public sector announcements, committing to improving the digital infrastructure of the nation. The Conservative government announced investments in both 5G and full-fibre in the Digital Strategy and Industrial Strategy, while the Labour manifesto commits to improving mobile internet and expanding free public Wi-Fi in city centres and on public transport. It is clear that we are approaching connectivity as a cross-party commitment,” he added.

Passengers on the Underground have been able to use Wi-Fi services on station platforms for five years. This service was first rolled out at major stations ahead of the 2012 London Olympics and has since been extended to all but a few locations, mostly those that are being upgraded to Crossrail interchanges.

Read more about technology on the Underground

However, up to now, the cramped and narrow nature of London Underground’s deepest tunnels – which are also barriers to installing air conditioning on most trains – have put the brakes on much talk of adding connectivity in the tunnels themselves.

This means that the technology used would likely differ substantially from that employed to supply standard 4G connectivity above ground, and may possibly include small cells or distributed antennae systems (DAS), both of which are already successfully used to improve indoor mobile coverage.

Furthermore, there will be substantial work needed to determine an appropriate funding model for the service – an issue that is thought to have been partly responsible for stalling a previous attempt to set up a similar service back in 2011.

It should also be noted that current plans for the Emergency Services Network (ESN) dictate that some kind of 4G service will have to be made available in any case to allow police, fire and medical services to communicate on the London Underground during a major incident.

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About time too. London is the only major city whose metro does not have seamless (at least as far as the users are concerned) communications. Its problems (with deep tunnels) are not unique and we may well see a variety of hybrid solutions being offered to cope with these. 
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