Mobile phones to be tested on Tube

After years of false starts, a six-month trial of underground mobile coverage will begin next year

London Underground has announced that it will launch a trial of subterranean mobile-phone services next year.

The Waterloo & City line will host the first test, which will start in April 2008 "at the earliest". According to a statement from London Underground (LU), the trial will include platforms at Bank and Waterloo stations, and the tunnels between them.

"The below-ground sections of the Underground are one of the few places in London where you are unable to use a mobile phone," said LU strategy and services development director Richard Parry in the statement. "We recognise that there is now growing demand for mobile coverage to be extended to deep-level sections of the Tube."

Parry added that the trial was geared not only towards establishing the technical possibility of such a service, but also its commercial viability. LU is currently seeking submissions from mobile oeprators who would be willing to participate in the trial.

One potential advantage of having connectivity on the Underground would be that passengers would be able to access Transport for London's mobile services, which include real-time travel updates. LU claims that a survey of passengers showed 56 percent supported the idea of being able to use their phones underground, although it is promising further surveys to coincide with the six-month trial.

If the trial is successful, it is anticipated that a private-sector company or consortium will roll out and manage the services, which would include not only cellular connectivity, but internet access and digital radio coverage. The earliest date when this could be done would be sometime around mid-2009.

Plans to extend mobile coverage underground are not new, but previous proposals have been hamstrung by the "unique physical and environmental constraints [of London's tube network] which need to be understood in greater detail", hence the forthcoming trial.

Tube bosses have been trying for years to make mobile phones work underground, with no success. LU has admitted that a proposal put forward in 2005 — to have coverage only on platforms — was not practicable, as "to have many thousands of mobile phones coming in and out of signal while passengers travel across the Tube network could potentially overload a mobile network on the Underground".

A report into the 7 July, 2005 bombings on the Tube criticised the inadequacies of London's underground radio communications, and resulted in the deployment of a new digital radio system called Connect. On Thursday, a spokesperson for LU told ZDNet UK that there was no connection between that network, which will be rolled out across the entire Tube network by the end of this year, and the mobile-phone trial.