London's tube network will become mobile-friendly by next year, according to Mobile Magazine, which reckons a contract is only weeks away. London taxes will be subsidising this contract.
That contract is said to be worth £150m, which will be spent by the network operators to provide both 2G and 3G coverage to the entire network, including between stations, but the annual running costs will need public money to make the project worthwhile, the quantity of which remains a sticking point.
Mobile Magazine reports that Thales and Huawei are up for keeping the system running, but details about who will pay and how much they will pay are still the subject of debate.
Connecting up London's tube network is technically very difficult - the depth of the tunnels makes signal propagation limited, and their girth (only marginally larger than the trains that fit though them, unlike other networks that frequently have a walkway beside the trains) makes fitting and maintenance expensive. There's also the question of what return operators can expect from their investment.
In the past there has been talk of connecting up station platforms for voice communications at least, which would be technically easier and have an obvious revenue stream, but on the trains themselves voice calls would be impossible when the network is busy, and hampered by the noise of the train any other time. More useful is data connectivity, for those Kindle-touting commuters - there isn't space for an iPad during rush hour, but one can generally manage a paperback book or electronic equivalent.
But that's not going to bring in any immediate revenue for the network operators, and if (as Mobile Magazine reports) all the UK operators are involved then there's no advertising opportunity either - so why bother doing it?
Boris, mayor of London, would like to see it happen and is apparently prepared to stump up an annual management fee to make it so, which is nice for those who want to scream "I'm on the tube", but less nice for the rest of us who'll end up paying for them to do so. ®