Londoners to be able to say ‘I’m on the Tube’ via wholesale

Londoners to be able to say ‘I’m on the Tube’ via wholesale 4G and 5G

22 June 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Canadian-owned company BAI Communications is to build a wholesale 4G and 5G network to cover London Underground’s stations.

Transport for London (TfL), the unit that manages the Tube and most other transit services in Greater London, said that BAI will install base stations in the Tube stations, including Oxford Circus, Tottenham Court Road, Euston, Bank and Camden Town, connected by 2,000km of fibre. BAI has a 20-year concession. 

TfL CFO Shashi Verma said: “London Underground was born in the 19th century, and this concession to deliver mobile coverage to the whole Tube network ensures it continues to adapt for customers in the 21st century.”

Though financial and contractual details have yet to emerge, the service is likely to be available to all mobile operators, including EE, Three, Vodafone and the newly merged Virgin Media O2.  

Underground stations have had limited connectivity for the past few years: just Wifi provided by Virgin Media, before it merged with O2 UK. This has meant London’s metro service has been way behind that of many other urban transport services across the world — with major cities including Barcelona, Hong Kong, Paris, Stockholm and Washington DC providing network coverage to their travelling customers.

The new 4G and 5G services will cover ticket halls, platforms and tunnels as the network is built over the next three years, with all stations and tunnels due to have mobile coverage by the end of 2024.

TfL operates 270 stations, but many of those are above ground in London’s suburbs and have coverage from mobile operators’ own base stations.

Verma said: “Providing mobile connectivity to customers within the tunnels and on platforms across London will help them stay connected more easily, and will both provide a long-term revenue stream for TfL and support economic growth across the city.”

BAI Communications, which won the London contract in a competitive tender, already provides mobile coverage in Canada for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) metro network. The company designed and runs communications systems for the Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) metro system. And it has a majority stake in Transit Wireless, which operates Wifi and cellular coverage on the New York subway.

Billy D’Arcy, a former O2 executive who is now CEO of BAI Communications UK, said: “By building the most advanced network of its kind in the world here, we are helping London leapfrog other major cities in terms of connectivity and ensure that the capital remains the most attractive place for investment. Across the length of this concession, we fully anticipate investing in excess of £1 billion across the Connected London programme.”

He said the network would also have internet of things (IoT) capabilities. “We will also establish a new city-wide high-capacity fibre network throughout London and leverage the power of 5G and the internet of things to unlock new opportunities for technological innovation.”

The company has already installed mobile on the newest bits of the Underground network, including the Jubilee line extension in east and south-east London, which was opened in 1999 and is built with much more space than the original deep-level Tube tunnels that date back to the 1890s and early 1900s.

In that trial, TfL and BAI installed a neutral host distributed antenna system (DAS) along the newer parts of the Jubilee line. All four UK mobile phone network operators took part in the trial and offered a service to their customers and the virtual networks that operate via their services.

It has also been installed on the new Northern line extension, yet to be opened, in south-west London.

BAI Communications has been majority owned by Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPP Investments) since 2009. Earlier this year it appointed Telefónica O2 UK’s Brendan O’Reilly to become its global CTO.