The mayor of London has pledged to deliver 4G internet coverage throughout the Underground if re-elected in May as part of his commitment to improve connectivity across the capital.
Under new proposals, Sadiq Khan has promised to speed up the rollout of fibre broadband and expand 5G across the capital, arguing that poor mobile connectivity is a “major barrier to growth”, particularly within underserved parts of the city.
Improving mobile and broadband networks has become an imperative for both of the main political parties since the last general election. Agreements have been signed with the industry to share equipment in rural areas to fill in mobile not-spots and to introduce subsidies for fibre build in less populated areas. However, urban connectivity also remains an issue in pockets of some cities.
The plan to install mobile phone services on the Underground has been debated for more than a decade with previous attempts to install equipment in the tunnels to pipe 4G signals to commuters derailed by engineering challenges and debates over who should fund the project.
Boosting connectivity will be an “essential” part of the plan to help unemployed Londoners get back to work as the lockdown eases, Khan said, arguing that focusing on employment was key to building a “brighter future” for the capital once the pandemic had ended.
“The expansion of 4G on the Tube and 5G citywide will enable Londoners to do everything from preparing pitches and applying for jobs to catching up on emails on the go,” Khan said.
Transport for London began rolling out 4G on the Jubilee line between Canning Town and Westminster as part of a trial last year. In 2019, City Hall invested £10m to upgrade the copper cables in some parts of the city to fibre optic, with the aim of creating a “fibre backbone” throughout the city.
However, telecoms sources have warned that there remains an issue of economics owing to the huge cost of installing 4G equipment across the Underground.
One executive remained “cynical” that the vision could be delivered quickly owing to the lack of a clear business model for the plan and the time it had taken to award a contract that was first tendered in 2017.
Cellnex, the Spanish infrastructure company that won a contract this month with Network Rail for a mobile network on the Brighton Mainline, and BAI, an Australian-based transport connectivity specialist, are still vying for the contract, according to people with direct knowledge of the talks.
Previous plans have been built on the notion that network operators including O2, Vodafone and EE would pay to connect their customers on the Tube system but the industry has rebuffed that notion as they would not be able to pass costs to consumers.
The London mayoral election will be held on May 6, with incumbent Khan up against Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey, co-leader of the Green party Siân Berry and Luisa Porritt from the Liberal Democrats.