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Travellers on the London Underground may be able to access 4G mobile broadband services on the Tube from 2019, after Transport for London (TfL) announced that it will tender for a system-wide 4G mobile network in early 2018, following a successful pilot build.
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The pilot network was deployed on the Waterloo & City Line – London’s shortest Tube line, which acts as a shuttle between the mainline rail hub at Waterloo and the City of London. It was built during the summer of 2017 primarily to demonstrate that it will be possible to provide coverage for blue light services using the future Emergency Services Network (ESN) in the event of an emergency.
The main purpose of this network build was not to show that 4G can function on the Tube – as TfL CTO Sasha Verma commented at the time, there is no technical concern that the service will not work – but to find out how quickly and easily the infrastructure can actually be deployed in the cramped confines of London’s Victorian tunnels.
With TfL obliged to have network coverage on the Tube as part of the delayed Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) after the existing Airwave terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) network is turned off, the organisation will also seek to get the best value out of its new asset by opening the network up to the public, generating commercial income for TfL that can be reinvested in its services.
“The success of this trial shows that we are on track to unlock one of the UK’s most high profile not-spots and deliver 4G mobile coverage throughout our tunnels and Tube stations,” said Graeme Craig, director of commercial development at TfL.
“This is great news for our customers and will also help us generate vital commercial income to reinvest in modernising and improving transport in London.”
London’s recently appointed chief digital officer, Theo Blackwell, added: “This is a brilliant initiative and part of our work to improve connectivity at home, in our high streets, public spaces and across the transport network. TfL’s innovation shows we can make a real difference and benefit Londoners through using city-wide public assets in a smarter way, starting with the Tube.”
Even though the ESN is EE’s project, all four of the UK’s mobile network operators (MNOs) took part in the network design and build, but with the help of O2 and Vodafone, the pilot also tested making data calls from one station to another without dropping reception. This was done outside working hours.
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“We are delighted to have worked with Transport for London on this trial,” said Ker Anderson, head of the London mobile network for Vodafone UK. “Delivering 4G on the Tube will keep our customers connected while they are on the move. We have seen usage of mobile data traffic increase by around 300% in London alone over two years. As a consequence, we continue to invest heavily in our network to offer Londoners, commuters and visitors the strongest signal possible across the capital, whether it’s on the Waterloo & City line, the top of the Shard, Wembley Stadium, Trafalgar Square or Clapham Junction.”
Paul Carter, CEO of Global Wireless Solutions, welcomed TfL’s announcement but expressed some concern that London’s authorities were not looking far enough ahead.
“As well as tackling not-spots, the new taskforce should also look at how it can prepare London for the inevitable roll-out of 5G technology so that visitors and residents benefit fully from new technology – by ensuring that the thousands of new cell sites can be deployed quickly and cost-effectively,” he said.
TfL has already begun market engagement with service providers, and has received multiple responses that it is using to build a clearer business case. It hopes to announce a service partner by summer 2018, with the first stations to be connected from 2019, probably in a staged roll-out.