China offers mobile Tube technology to London

Feb 21, 2011
Jonathan Harwood

Huawei will provide £50m gift to allow commuters to use their phones on the network by 2012

Commuters in London could be able to use their mobile phones on parts of the Underground network in time for the Olympics next year after a Chinese technology firm offered the capital a 'gift' worth £50m.

Technology giant Huawei has offered to provide the technology to allow travellers to stay in touch on their mobiles as "a gift from one Olympic host nation to another".

If the timescale of having reception on board trains by the Olympics is to be met then contracts must be signed within weeks so that the work can commence. For that to happen Huawei must reach an agreement with Underground contractor Thales and Transport for London (TfL), which is chaired by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

The deal would see the Chinese company provide transmitters that would be attached to the inside of the Underground's tunnels. Mobile operators like Vodafone and O2 have agreed to pay for the installation costs.

Johnson wants to introduce wi-fi technology across the London Underground network by 2012. But the largely pre-war infrastructure of the system has stymied many previous efforts, although a six-month project providing wi-fi hotspots in parts of Charing Cross station began late last year.

The Huawei offer could mean that the Central, Jubilee and parts of the Piccadilly line are equipped before the Games begin and the rest of the network could be added later. It is unclear if the technology will allow for voice calls throughout the system or will just allow access to messages and emails.

Some people have already raised concerns over Huawei's motivation in offering help to London. The company has close military ties and the Sunday Times points out that the offer comes just a couple of years after warnings from security experts that China could have the power to cripple Britain by attacking its telecoms and utilities infrastructure.

Speaking at an event at Finsbury Park Tube station on Monday, Johnson said: "The issue is not so much the Chinese company that is offering to help or security issues. The issue is the technology, given we have got very old and narrow tunnels. I am not ruling it out but I am not ruling it in either. It is on the way but do not count your chickens.

"It is commercially difficult, it is technically difficult and I am urging caution. In the long run, if you look at other big cities, they all have mobile phones working on Tubes... I think it is the way to go and we have got to give people the ability to text and perhaps have some coverage for voice telephony."

Other new technology projects have been successful on the Tube. For example, Transport for London has confirmed that by next year, the face of every commuter entering the network will be caught on CCTV.

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