1. Transport
October 28, 2015

Another city has added mobile reception to its metro system. What's taking London so long?

By Ed Hickey

The future is here – or at least, it is in Melbourne.

This month the city’s transit authority announced fully operative mobile phone signal system throughout its 12km stretch of train tunnels, allowing passengers full unbroken 3G voice and 4G data coverage for the first time.

Melbournians have been marvelling at the technological advance, many taking to Twitter while on the trains to announce that they, er, are taking to Twitter while on the trains.

If you’re a commuter on the London Underground, or many other city metro systems, chances are you’ll be looking on with envy. We all know the feeling of hanging around outside the station while you finish that important phone call, or not being able to text a waiting friend to tell them your train is immobile in a tunnel.  When it comes to underground connectivity, London is seriously behind the pack.

Installing signal in metro systems is a big undertaking, and most major cities have chosen to prioritise wifi. North American cities such as New York, Chicago and Montreal have partial coverage, as does Paris. Barcelona offers connection and free wifi throughout 75 per cent of its tunnels.

But East Asia leads the way: passengers on Seoul’s underground have been able to access free wifi throughout the network’s stations and tunnels for over five years. Tokyo’s Metro offers universal instant-access 3G and broadband connection, as does Hong Kong’s MTR network. Londoners, meanwhile, can currently only access wifi at a few selected stations – if they subscribe.

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Of course, we tend to appreciate technological advances for only a moment, before loudly demanding the next leap forward. From one point of view, this might be considered just a little bit ungrateful. As comedian Louis CK said, of a friend’s complaints about an airline:

 “‘We didn’t board for 40 minutes and the movies didn’t work. It was the worst day of my life.’ Oh really? Did you fly through the air incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero? You’re sitting in the chair in the sky!”

And yet, once upon a time, we were looking forward to a roll out of wifi across the network in time for the 2012 Olympics. Since then, the lack of phone signal and internet connection within the tunnels has felt like progress stalled.

Reports making the UK business case for better mobile connectivity emerge from time to time, but the economic impact of metro connectivity is difficult to gauge. In Melbourne’s case, the rationale was as much about building the city’s brand as a global destination for tourists as it was about business. That Australian cities have to compete with the likes of Tokyo and Hong Kong serves as a pretty powerful incentive.

Percentage of questioned metro networks offering Internet connectivity in underground stations (2014 survey). Image: New Cities Foundation.

London will need to make considerable investment if it is to keep pace. And with TfL facing an unpleasant mix of constrained resources and unprecedented population growth, you can forgive the fact phone connectivity has been demoted to a secondary concern.

And yet, how did we fall so far behind that we can’t offer a comparative service to Berlin or Paris? The answer lies in our relatively sluggish broadband network, which is far slower than that of much of mainland Europe (and a world away from Seoul’s internet speeds). A 2011 TfL plan estimated the cost of the infrastructure necessary to overcome this at around £100m. The government declined to pay for this.

Even if we’re not able to keep up with the improvements going on elsewhere in the world, however, the development of cheaper technology will likely mean full London Underground connectivity of some kind before long. So, too, would an upturn in the political will to fund it.

So other than making the city more accessible to visitors, how would it change the way Londoners travel? One suspects the impact would be incremental. Commuter carriages are unlikely to get much noisier – London’s commuters are a reserved breed, and the busy overground trains tend to be stony silent, even with good phone signal. Of course it will become increasingly common to check and send emails between stations. Daily commutes will increasingly become time spent working, particularly in the morning.

But perhaps the most immediately noticeable impact will be on how we entertain ourselves on the move. There are currently on average 4.4m journeys taken on the London Underground every day. Up until this point, this market has been dominated by the big free papers – the Metro, and to a greater extent the Evening Standard. The latter currently monopolises the evening commute, circulating its 900,000 copies each day almost entirely through London’s tube stations: it enjoys the second biggest daily readership of any newspaper in the country.

Could the introduction of reliable and universal wifi across the tube network represent a real threat to the paper’s commercial viability, as commuters graduate towards streaming music or videos on their phones rather than ritually grabbing a paper from the stack? With the world’s entertainment at our fingertips, taking something to read for the journey may become less of a priority.

Ed Hickey writes on cities and politics. He tweets as @Ed_Hick.

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