Tube mobile coverage talks collapse

Negotiations around setting up mobile coverage on the London Underground in time for the Olympics have fallen through, according to the organisations involved
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

Plans for mobile coverage on the London Underground have been shelved indefinitely, according to the organisations involved.

Vodafone, Everything Everywhere, O2 and 3 said on Friday that talks to provide comprehensive mobile coverage in time for the 2012 London Olympics had failed.

London Underground mobile coverage

Plans for mobile coverage on the Tube have been shelved indefinitely. Photo credit: CokeeOrg on Flickr

"We have been working closely with infrastructure partners and London Underground for some time with the hope of delivering mobile services to the London Underground and are disappointed that it will not be possible to deliver such services in time for next year's Olympic games," said the mobile network operators. "As a group, we will continue to positively explore all other avenues available to us in order to provide a service at a later date."

Chinese telecoms infrastructure provider Huawei, which was the front runner to provide the telecoms platform for Tube mobile coverage, told ZDNet UK that its kit had been security tested. Huawei products are tested by CESG, which is part of GCHQ.

"The reliability of our products was fully recognised by the customer," said Huawei in a statement. "We have consistently proved that our wireless technology is market leading, and it is a shame that London Underground passengers will not have a chance to benefit from our solutions."

The company was going to give equipment to Transport for London (TfL) for free to meet zero-cost stipulations in the tender, a Huawei spokeswoman told ZDNet UK on Friday.

"We were willing to donate part of the equipment because one of the primary targets of the Mayor's Office was to provide a cost neutral network," said the spokeswoman. "Our solutions have been deployed [in Underground networks] in Sydney, Shanghai, Tokyo and Osaka."

A source close to the process told ZDNet UK that talks broke down between TfL, the mobile network operators (MNOs), Huawei and Thales, London Underground's signalling and control provider, because of the "complexity" of setting up 3G networks in tunnels.

'A commercial decision'

The decision to halt the talks was commercial, rather than due to worries over the security of the proposed network, according to a leaked email seen by ZDNet UK from mayoral policy director for economic development Anthony Browne.

"This was, we understand, a purely commercial decision, and was not related to any media speculation about security," Browne said in the email on Thursday. "We have been told by the government that there were no security issues with the proposed deployment." Browne went on to thank the organisations involved for putting "time and effort and money into trying to develop a service that would have benefitted millions of London residents and visitors".

Mobile coverage remains a long-term goal, but our efforts will be focused on guaranteeing a major expansion of Wi-Fi coverage in Tube stations for the Olympics.
– London mayor's office

The mayor's office declined to say whether the breakdown in talks was an embarrassment for mayor Boris Johnson, who was in favour of the plan, but said in a statement that Johnson's office would continue to push for mobile coverage on the Tube.

"[Mobile coverage] remains a long-term goal, but our efforts meanwhile will be focused on guaranteeing a major expansion of Wi-Fi coverage in Tube stations in time for the Olympics," the mayor's office said. "We are proceeding with great energy and haste to deliver that improvement, which will mean Londoners can then use their mobile devices to pick up their emails or access the internet while passing through our stations."

TfL said on 25 March that it was inviting telecoms companies to tender for Wi-Fi provision in London Underground stations, and claimed that up to 120 stations could have Wi-Fi access in time for the June 2012 Olympics.

ZDNet UK understands that MNOs have not actually been given a tender document yet, but that they are due to get one in around two weeks.

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