Transport for London tried to block engineers and surveyors from EE and Three carrying out a survey for a new mobile phone mast by telling a judge they “might insert a USB stick into a computer” or “upload some virus”.
The comments were made by a barrister acting on London Underground’s behalf when a dispute over rooftop access ended up in front of the Upper Tribunal’s Lands Chamber.
The two mobile network operators wanted to send surveyors onto the roof of a TfL-owned office block in Southwark, as the first step to putting a mobile mast on the roof. TfL tried to block this because the building also contains London Underground’s main power control centre, a piece of critical national infrastructure.
Upper Tribunal judge Martin Rodger QC ruled in the networks’ favour, dismissing TfL’s legal arguments that surveyors could be blocked from accessing the office block’s roof.
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“Mr Balen” said the judge in his full ruling, referring to TfL’s barrister Mischa Balen, “also explained that London Underground is fearful that someone coming into the building might insert a USB stick into a computer and either download some critical information or upload some virus, or otherwise do some mischief.”
Further details were given to the tribunal by a senior TfL security person: “That evidence is provided by Mr Kevin Clack, who is the network security and policing manager for Transport for London, the respondent’s parent organisation.”
Clack, said the judge, made “the rather surprising suggestion” that nobody had “time to supervise access to the roof of the building” as an argument against letting Three and EE inspect it.
TfL also tried to impress the judge by referring to recent “terrorist attacks causing serious loss of life”.
London Underground’s main control centre for trains and electricity alike is at Palestra, a dreary glass-fronted office block opposite Southwark tube station in South London and next to the Thameslink tracks running between King’s Cross and London Bridge stations.
Its function was confirmed in a 2016 London Assembly meeting note (PDF). Due to its high flat roof relative to nearby buildings and the large number of commuter trains passing by on the busy Thameslink tracks, Palestra appears to be a good candidate for a mobile mast.
“I do not accept that what is proposed by the claimants would expose the building to an appreciable risk of sabotage, nor that extending the number of individuals with knowledge of the building and what it is used for (to the extent such knowledge would be acquired by a visitor) would increase such a risk,” concluded Judge Rodgers.
The two mobile networks are therefore permitted to inspect Palestra's roof, though if the networks decide they do want to place a mast on it, another dispute could arise.
A previous dispute about laws granting telcos legal rights to access third parties’ buildings for the purpose of putting mobile masts on them ended up in the Court of Appeal in 2019. There, the University of London lost an attempt to block surveyors for a proposed new mast that would have served Paddington station and Vodafone’s London HQ.
The proposed mobile mast might even bring benefits to TfL: last year Capita won a contract to provide existing Airwave radios, used by the emergency services, with 4G-based connectivity run through EE’s network. ®