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Full 4G coverage coming to London Underground... by the mid-2020s

London's Tube will get full mobile coverage -- at some point in the coming decade.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

London is finally gearing up to address one of the biggest gripes that visitors and commuters have when using the Underground: no mobile connectivity. 

Two years after London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced 4G would arrive in the Tube by 2019, Transport for London (TfL) says fourth-generation connectivity is really coming -- just a little later than expected. By March 2020 the eastern half of the Jubilee line will have mobile access on station platforms and in tunnels between Westminster and Canning Town. 

The new mobile infrastructure will offer an alternative to the existing Wi-Fi available in some stations (TfL also recently started using Wi-Fi to track passenger flows.) 

"This is a really important step for the millions of people who use the Tube each year," said Khan.

"Introducing 4G and, in the future, 5G will help Londoners and visitors keep in touch and get the latest travel information while on the go. London is the best place to live, visit and work -- and projects like this will help make it even better."

Mobile service at London Bridge and Waterloo stations is expected to come online in 2020, subject to approvals. 

While the initial rollout will address major mobile black spots in the city, full coverage of the London Underground isn't expected until the "mid-2020s", by which time much of the rest of the country should be using 5G.

TfL says a new procurement phase will commence shortly for coverage of the entire Underground, with contracts expected to be signed by mid-2020. 

The soon-to-be-launched trial phase is meant to inform the transport agency and mobile network operators about the challenges in running a mobile network across the Underground.

TfL is installing the cabling required for the network ahead of awarding the contract so that it can "better manage station access, reduce the amount of disruption these works may cause to customers and allow the concessionaire to then quickly utilise infrastructure once the final contract is awarded". 

The agency says it will lay 2,000km of cabling to support the full network, with all installation happening outside of operational hours.

"The London Underground network is an incredibly challenging environment in which to deliver technological improvements, but we are now well on the path to delivering mobile connectivity within our stations and tunnels," said Shashi Verma, chief technology officer at TfL.   

The night Tube's around the clock service on Fridays and Saturdays also restricts available installation hours. Additionally, narrow spaces between the trains and tunnel walls leaves little room to safely install network gear. 

TfL says it has narrowed down the list of contenders for the work to four bidders, which include Axia SC Consortium, BAI Communications, Cellnex UK Ltd, and Wireless Infrastructure Group

Now read: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)

The winner will need to have a full grasp of the challenges of working within a transport network that opened 150 years ago. 

The same mobile network will host the Home Office's troubled Emergency Services Network (ESN) that will replace the legacy Airwave system used by the Britain's police, fire services, and emergency response teams. 

The planned rollout of 4G follows a trial on the Waterloo and City line during 2017, which was carried out with Telefonica O2 and Vodafone using Huawei's radio units, LampSite base stations, and small cells.  BT also provided a backhaul circuit using a Cisco router. 

A Commons select committee gave a damning assessment of the ESN project last week, due to massive budget overruns, poor contractor management, unrealistic goals, and missed deadlines. BT, which acquired EE after it won the ESN contract, has also removed Huawei equipment from the core network over its stance on using equipment from the Chinese network vendor.

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