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Going Underground? Don't Expect a Good Reception (for Your Phone That is)

written by: •edited by: Simon Hill•updated: 9/30/2011

This week the New York subway entered the high tech era, allowing mobile phones to be used underground... in 4 of the 277 stations anyway. The London Underground is still nowhere near getting to this point though. Why are two of the world's biggest cities so behind the times?

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    Tale of Two Cities

    manonfplatform Mobile phone users in Hong Kong, San Francisco and Glasgow (to name just a few cities) already enjoy the benefits of using their mobile on the subway, so the fact the world's first underground system is still without this technology is somewhat of a head scratcher. And although the pilot scheme in New York is to be applauded, the fact it is only available at four stations (not even on the trains themselves once away from the platform) is pretty much laughable.

    London and New York are important financial centers of the world, so why is it that other cities are leaving them standing from a technology standpoint? Ironically, it's all about the money.

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    An Olympic Task

    Being two of the oldest underground networks not only means that of course London and New York were cities ahead of their time when the subway and tube networks were built, but it now means that they have the oldest networks, which of course is going to cause problems. Older rail networks means bigger problems, bigger problems means bigger costs. This seems to be the real sticking point.olympiclogo 

    It's not for want of trying that the London Tube hasn't gone high tech though. Plans were shelved in 2009 when two years after putting out a tender for a trial of mobile phone technology on the Waterloo and City Line it seemed that the unique and aged underground system just proved too problematic and expensive to be viable. Basically the costs involved just weren't worth the payoff.

    Loony but lovable Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, decided that being the Olympic city of 2012, not offering mobile coverage on the tube was unacceptable. He declared he would "Bash heads together" to get those in the mobile industry concerned to work things out in time for the Olympics. Well he mustn't have bashed hard enough because in April 2011 plans were once again derailed because of high costs. Putting antennas and cabling through the antiquated tunnels is just too costly. And if you aren't going to get it done in time for the Olympics then chances are you aren't going to get it at all London. It seems only things that will benefit the Olympics are approved in the big smoke right now -- never mind what happens after that, as long as the Olympic visitors are happy.

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    Why Worry We Got Wi-Fi

    undergroundsign So if we accept that it's more difficult in regards to the logistics of cabling etc., for the world's oldest underground systems, then how come New York are getting it done now? The huge financial investment needed meant that the original contractor ran into trouble and were in fact bailed out by Broadcast Australia (obviously an Australian wireless operator). By comparison the forecast cost of the necessary works on the London Underground were going to be partially met by Chinese telecoms provider Huawei. By all accounts talks broke down between them and UK operators although it's believed that four of the biggest operators already spent several million pounds on the project.

    As an off-shoot from this issue though, it has meant that Olympic visitors should be kept relatively happy with an extended free Wi-Fi agreement in parts of London -- again if you want something done in London say it's for the Olympics and it's "ask and you shall receive." It's not clear if this Wi-Fi will remain free and accessible once the Olympic carnival has packed up its truck and moved on.

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    Is It Really Important?

    I was surprised that when interviewed, regular NY subway users weren't really bothered about the news that they could use their cell phones underground. One reaction I wasn't expecting was that a lot of commuters were a little vexed that now there was no escape from their phones. No few minutes of respite or peace from messages, calls or emails from the boss -- the underground was the one place they could escape all that for a short while. Although others did say that on a 40 minute journey there was a lot of work that they could get done so the time was put to good use.

    So, is it really important that New York and London get with the times? I genuinely think it is, and here's why.

    Not being financially viable for two rich cities is an unbelievable excuse, and most commuters would welcome the chance of being able to use their phones to get some extra work done on the commute -- they can always turn them off for some peace after all. In Hong Kong each mobile phone user pays a tunnel fee to cover the extra costs for the tech involved in getting a signal underground. It's not even a high amount, and this could easily be adopted in London -- a small fee added to the underground ticket or indeed to phone contracts of users with a London postcode could not be that difficult to administer.

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    It's About More Than Emails

    subwaygirl London and New York are most certainly no strangers to terrorist attacks, and getting a signal underground might prove vital in a terrorist situation, which is an angle that hasn't yet been considered in all this talk about "financial viability." A recent study following the earthquake in Haiti showed that Digicel (the country's biggest mobile phone network) were able to provide information about how many people had fled to which area by seeing which phone towers people were using. On July 7th 2005 many people were virtually imprisoned (or worse) as part of a terrorist plot when using the Tube in London. Having no phone reception whatsoever meant that authorities didn't really know how many people were down there, never mind that those concerned weren't able to make themselves heard.

    Mobile phone reception underground isn't just about offering a better service, it's about giving a choice that other cities take for granted that these cities deserve too, and yes even offering a lifeline in some situations. Why should it be that travellers in other cities can use their mobile on the subway and leave NY and London standing?

    Just because something appears to be commercially unviable, does not mean that it is not a worthwhile thing to do. And in the long-term the money could easily be earned back. The smartphone industry is booming and networks are cleaning up, so isn't it about time that they used some of that profit for something worthwhile for everyone? Just think of all the extra data usage charges they can sting us for!

    What do you think? Is the subway the one place you enjoy peace from your smartphone, or is it a scandal that New York and London are so behind the times? Leave a comment and let us know.