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Mind the gap(ing mouth): London's Underground to get ubiquitous mobile phone coverage

That's. Just. Great

Mobile phone coverage is to be extended across the whole of the London Underground – including every station and every tunnel - by 2024, it was confirmed today.

It means hard-pressed commuters – who are slowly returning to the soul-sapping slog of travelling to work each day - are to lose one of the few places they can go without being bothered by pesky phone calls: be it their own or someone else’s.

The announcement comes as Transport for London (TfL) confirmed it has awarded a 20-year concession for 4G and 5G infrastructure to BAI Communications (BAI), which operates similar networks for subways in Toronto and New York as well as a public transport system in Hong Kong.

BAI said it expects to invest more than £1bn across the Connected London programme, including using the tunnel network of the Tube to pipe fibre to other parts of the capital.

According to today’s announcement, this will help to “further increase mobile coverage through small mobile transmitters, as well as leveraging the power of 5G to deliver city-wide improvements and future growth.”

Asked to explain the business model underpinning the deal, a spokesperson for BAI said: “On an operational level, BAI offers a neutral host solution with one network that all mobile operators can share. The neutral host makes a return from operating and maintaining the network on the operators’ behalf. The good news is that BAI builds one network that all operators get to use at a fraction of the cost that it would ordinarily cost them to build themselves.”

One of those likely to have a significant role in the project is BAI UK Chief Operating Officer Ken Ranger, who moved from Toronto to London a couple of years ago. While he was there, he took the lead in the rollout of the comms network across the Toronto subway.

And the similarities with today’s announcement are easy to spot.

A company blog in 2019 about Ranger’s appointment – and what he brings to the UK – explains how the Toronto deal in 2012 was also a 20-year licence agreement.

“The service is made possible by the independent communications infrastructure BAI invests in, owns and operates. This, in turn, generates revenue for the TTC, Toronto’s transport network operator,” it said.

Work has already begun on London's comms network with cabling already installed on the Jubilee and Victoria lines, as well as within the Northern Line Extension. It is now expected to begin at some of London's busiest stations including Oxford Circus, Tottenham Court Road, Bank, Euston, and Camden Town with the first due to flicker into life late next year.

TfL has been running a trial of the technology covering the eastern half of the Jubilee line including Westminster and Canning Town since March 2020. ®

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