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London Underground: Why no Wi-Fi?

What happened to Wi-Fi on the tube and if it existed would you use it? Four years ago we read about a trial that was going to take place to test wireless technology on the London Underground, and yet there still isn’t any mobile or Wi-Fi access on trains or platforms. Imagine being able to download apps or Spotify playlists on the Tube. Recently we contacted TFL to find out what happened and it responded with the following statement:

“The trial that you refer to, did not take place. Back in 2005 we tendered for a trial of mobile phones on the Waterloo and City line but the market has yet to provide us with a credible proposal for enabling mobile phone use on the deep level Tube. While it is technically possible to deploy mobile phone and data wireless solutions on the deep level Underground tunnels and stations, the unique nature and environment of the Tube mean that project costs would be prohibitively high at this time.”

But why is it that certain cities are able to test and deliver Wi-Fi on underground trains? We spoke to several companies that deliver Wi-Fi solutions to find out more. Marcus Kalt, VP of business development for Andrew Solutions explained that the key success factor will be the cooperation of all involved parties, adding:

“45% of the London Underground is underground and the tunnels are very narrow. Installation of a radiating cable inside the tunnel will be challenging due to the fact that operations of the transport system will always have priority over the installation of a mobile phone system. This challenge can be overcome with tight project management and the implementation team of the mobile communication system working closely with the operations team of the Underground”.

So it’s technically possible, if not difficult, but as Ricky Watts, director of strategy at Aircom International, points out, there are questions around the broader business model for Wi-Fi on the underground. Watts highlighted issues around how customers would authenticate their user status, pay for the service, use it in rush hour and would we really pay for Wi-Fi connectivity on the Tube, when as soon as we get off the train and reach the surface, our normal cellular service kicks in.

Overall the message seemed to be, yes, it is possible, but it would be very expensive and there are serious questions around the business potential. We think we would use it and we would be prepared to pay a monthly subscription but would everyone else? Do you dream of accessing data on the Underground or do you like a break from it all?

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