London begins official process to put cellular in Underground

Commercial process to put mobile on the Tube begins in earnest.

The process to select a commercial partner to upgrade and commercialise the communications capability of TfL assets in London began in earnest today (Thursday, 22 January).

The first stage of that wider process will be to upgrade the London underground to support cellular services – or to put mobile on the Tube, in other words.

TfL held a briefing session on Thursday at City Hall with commercial parties interested in bidding for the ‘Telecommunications Commercialisation Project’.  Under the scope of this project, TfL will select a commercial partner to invest in the infrastructure needed to deploy public cellular in the London Underground, and to commercialise TfL’s assets (including fibre and street level assets) to bring greater connectivity to consumers and businesses across London. It is distinct from the Emergency Services Network (ESN) process which is running in parallel.

TfL will issue a Standard Selection Questionnaire (SSQ) – expected by the end of March – which will allow it to shortlist commercial partners with a view to issuing an Invitation to Tender (ITT) in the summer.

Graeme Craig, Director of Commercial Development at TfL, said: “Our Connected London event brought together a range of exciting companies who can help us unlock one of the UK’s most high profile not-spots, and deliver 4G mobile coverage throughout our tunnels and Tube stations. We remain committed to introduce this in our stations from 2019, allowing customers to check their emails, read the latest news and social media updates as well as check for live travel information while underground on the Tube.”

A TfL briefing document produced prior to the event said, “Connected London is a long-term vision. We are seeking a partnership that will provide mobile connectivity across our extensive above and below ground network of assets and pave the way for a roll out of 5G across the Capital.”

The document also included the following graphic of TfL’s assets that could support LTE and then 5G rollouts.

In November 2017 TfL released details of trials  between Waterloo and Bank stations, announcing a target of commercial coverage beginning from 2019, with further rollouts thereafter.

One of the parties that has said it will bid, Wireless Infrastructure Group, said the “proposed partnership goes much further than the Tube, however, and TfL also has ambitions to harness its extensive above ground assets to transform  connectivity in London”.

There are lots of challenges with getting mobile coverage through London’s underground rail tunnels and stations. Aside from the technical aspects, there are deployment issues including access to tunnels and availability of trained and accredited crews to do the work itself. But it has become clear that TfL is under a political imperative from City Hall to get it done, and we appear to be closer than ever to a connected tube in London.