Jubliee Line

4G mobile technology to launch in London Underground

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Passengers on the London Underground will be able to use their phones in tunnels between stations from early next year, removing one of the last major public places in Britain without phone reception.

Transport for London ( TfL) has confirmed that 4G mobile phone technology would go live in tunnels on most of the Jubilee line from March 2020 and on other lines in the coming years.

The move raises the prospect of commuters making and receiving phone calls while packed into typically largely chat-free tube carriages.

Mark Bulle, TfL’s head of infrastructure transformation, acknowledged that passenger behaviour could change.

“People could have their commute interrupted – but at the end of the day it’s up to people whether they take the call from their boss.”

However, he expects most people to instead use the connection for data services, and he said it should be fast enough to allow uninterrupted viewing of video streams. “You should be able to stream live sports,” he said.

Mobile phone coverage has been standard in many subway systems around the world for several years, with some cities such as Moscow offering commuters both wifi and mobile phone connections. Even the Channel tunnel has a 4G signal, but until now London commuters have had to rely on the wifi system available only in stations – resulting in a rush to log on at the moment a train pulls into the platform.

The capital’s underground network, the world’s oldest subway network, poses a challenge because many of the lines are built in narrow tunnels that often bend to follow the route of public roads on the surface, making it harder for signals to travel along them. TfL is adopting a model based on “leaky feeders” – essentially running cables through tunnels that act as giant aerials.

The upgrade, which will ultimately require around 2,000km of new cabling, is being installed in conjunction with a much-delayed Home Office-mandated 4G telephone network for the emergency services, saving the need to fit two different sets of equipment.

While TfL is picking up the bill for initial trial on the Jubilee line extension between Canning Town and Westminster, it will soon award a contract to a private operator which will install 4G equipment within all of London’s tube tunnels by the mid-2020s. Mobile phone networks will then pay the private operator for access to the network, with the transport authority receiving a cut of profits.

Installation of the network is complicated by the decision to introduce 24-hour tube services, which limits the amount of access that engineering staff have to the tunnels.

Although the UK’s four mobile phone networks are is still in negotiations about accessing the new equipment in London’s tube tunnels, TfL expects that customer demand will ensure they all provide services on the move. “Our suspicion is that none of them will want to be left behind,” said Bulle.

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