Dropped Call For London Tube Phone Access Tender

Eric is a veteran British tech journalist, currently editing ChannelBiz for NetMediaEurope. With expertise in security, the channel, and Britain’s startup culture, through his TechBritannia initiative

Plans to take Wi-Fi underground on London’s Tube have hit the buffers over funding and access agreements

Transport for London (TfL) has shelved plans to roll out Wi-Fi access to 120 London Underground stations in time for the Olympic Games next year. This will be seen as a blow for Mayor of London Boris Johnson who promised to “bash heads together” to ensure wireless access would be available by 2012.

TfL put out a call for tender on 28 March but last night admitted that service providers backed down when asked to fund the £150 million scheme. There was also concern expressed that the project would not be completed on time. London Underground would only allow the installers access to the Tube tunnels for three hours every night.

Hopes alive for station access

The talks breakdown has been corroborated by O2,Vodafone, 3 and Everything Everywhere. A joint statement from the mobile operators expressed their disappointment that the talks had broken down but added optimistically that: “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.”

This was echoed by a spokesperson for TfL who said, “It 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.”

This less ambitious plan would extend  Wi-Fi links from the ground-level entrance halls of major stations to their platforms. In this way, phone and mobile device users would have some degree of access to the Internet while underground.

Chinese company Huawei’s promised £50 million worth of equipment for the project “as a contribution from one Olympic nation to another”. Whether this offer will stand after the Olympics circus has left town looks doubtful.

Financial pressures

The free offer was a sweetener for the bidding service suppliers as it would lower the cost of implementation. “The mayor and TfL made it clear that, given the financial pressures on TfL’s budgets, any solution would have to have been funded through mobile operators with no cost to fare or tax payers,” said the TfL spokesperson.

If Huawei’s offer is withdrawn, the investment for the mobile operators will be increased. This could prolong future negotiations as the mobile services suppliers try to squeeze some money from TfL, the government or other potential investors. it could be several years before plans reach fruition and the scheme could be shelved indefinitely.

This will please the majority of Tube users, according to passenger surveys. Anywhere between 55 percent and 76 percent of travellers polled said that they would not want mobile access from the Tube. This was not just because of the nuisance value and password security risks but also because of fears that muggings on unmanned stations and trains would increase or that terrorists would use the system to co-ordinate attacks or remotely trigger explosive devices.

In a press conference this morning, Mayor Johnson denied that the breakdown was a major setback. He dismissed the project as not being a vital addition to the Games’ facilities adding, “and it wasn’t that popular anyway”.