London underground to get a mobile network – finally

By February 21, 2011London

image It has emerged this morning that Huawei are bidding to provide mobile network on the London underground in time for the 2102 Olympics.  In my opinion this development is long overdue.  Just about every other major city I visit has mobile access on their metro system and if London is to remain a major financial, media and technology centre we should have the same.  Internet access is a key piece of infrastructure for modern economies and given the number of people that use the underground every day and the amount of time they spend there the benefits of web access underground can only outweigh the costs.

Over the years I have heard that problems of bureaucracy were the responsible for stymieing development, and I understand that the ageing infrastructure in the underground makes development expensive (many of the copper cables are apparently so old that if you move them they crack and stop working) but I suspect part of the problem is that the way mobile bills are structured operators wouldn’t benefit much the extra usage they would get.  Too many people are on unlimited data plans and don’t use up their monthly bundle of minutes and texts, and if these people use their phones on the underground there will be a marginal extra cost for operators, but no extra revenues.

I carry two mobile phones, a Blackberry which I use for voice and email, and an iPhone for browsing and apps.  Until recently the iPhone cost me virtually nothing, as provided I had call credit data access was unlimited, and because I use the Blackberry as my primary phone I rarely used up my call credit.  A month or so back that changed and now I have to regularly top up just because of data usage.  Obviously that costs me money, and is a pain on that level, but overall I welcome it as a step towards a more sustainable charging model.  Spectrum is a scarce resource and operators should be charging more to those of us who use it more, for data as well as voice.  If they did that then the business cases for further development of their networks would be easier to make, which would be a good thing for all of us.

There is a case that the government, or local government, should be subsidising the rollout of mobile to the underground as a public good.  I think there is merit in that argument, but right now and for the next couple of years there simply isn’t enough money to go round.  It is good to see that the London Mayor Boris Johnson and his team are doing everything they else they can to make this development a reality.

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  • Anonymous

    Charging more for data is not going to solve the problem of access on the underground without price differentiation of data there and elsewhere – I guess operators could have an “underground surcharge” but I doubt it would cover the cost of the investment needed and would be expensive to implement as a billing option.

    I am somewhat surprised however that it’s not easier (i.e. cheaper) to solve the problem using wifi instead of extending the mobile network; would have been a big “win” for one of the wifi networks to get the tube.

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  • The 2102 Olympics? Wow. They’re planning ahead!

  • 🙂 these things take a depressingly long time

  • You make a good point. Wifi might well be better.

    My point re charging models is that at the moment increasing usage doesn’t do much for ARPU and hence they aren’t particularly incentivised to maximise network reach and quality.

  • Anonymous

    I understand the complaint mobile operators have; however allowing increasing usage should be how they compete against each other; in exactly the same way broadbrand providers do. I don’t see an issue with premium plans (I pay for Virgin 50mb at home) but the big problem is that mobile operators still don’t want to admit that they are just dumb pipes and need to compete on infrastructure and service provision and forget so many activities they get involved with.

  • I agree, although they are getting closer to it, and they can be smart pipes with great APIs