4G goes live on the London Underground

The first trials to bring 4G to the London Underground transport system are now live, offering connectivity to commuters travelling between Westminster and Canning Town stations.

As one of the most significant ‘not spots’ in the UK, the trial will bring 4G connectivity to seven station ticketing areas, corridors, platforms and tunnels between Westminster and Canning Town stations. London Bridge and Waterloo, two of the busiest stations in the city, will only have signal on the Jubilee line platforms.

“Poor mobile connectivity is a major barrier to growth so I’m delighted that Tube passengers on the eastern section of the Jubilee line will be able to enjoy 4G access,” said Heidi Alexander, Deputy Mayor for Transport. “This milestone will enable Londoners and visitors to get online while travelling through tunnels and platforms, doing everything from watching videos and messaging friends to catching up on emails.”

What remains to be seen is the impact coronavirus has on the trials and deployment plans for the rest of the Underground. Speaking to Transport for London (TfL), the team is suggesting trials and the deployment plan is progressing as planned, though this is difficult to believe. The immediate trials are unlikely to be affected, though with the restrictions being placed on the country there is almost certainly going to be some sort of impact.

That said, it might be positive. With demands on the subterranean transport system lessened thanks to more people being asked to work from home, timetables might well be altered. A normal London Underground timetable would only leave 4-5 hours a day to do work in the tunnels. TfL might well alter the timetable in the future, meaning more time might be available each evening for work to progress. It might offer an opportunity to accelerate the deployment of an underground network.

The pilot itself was developed with Capita, who sub-contracted to Nokia and Installation Technology, at a cost of £10 million. TfL is aiming to recoup the cost through contracts with the MNOs, while there seem to be plans to realise additional revenue streams though the connectivity bonanza. All four telcos will offer 4G services.

“Not only will the project bring much needed service to commuters across London – it will also mean thousands of fans travelling to The O2 for the best live entertainment events in the UK will now be able to share their experiences with friends and family, before and after a show,” said Derek McManus, COO of O2.

“We want to help people stay connected and make the most of their daily commute, enjoying their favourite shows, talking to friends or just getting a head start on the working day,” said David Dyson, CEO of Three. “Every year, the average London commuter spends two weeks on the tube travelling to and from work, so there’s a huge opportunity for us to help people reclaim that valuable time.”

As it stands, more than 390km of the first ‘Leaky Feeder’ antennae cabling and 60km of the second ‘Leaky Feeder’ antennae cabling has been laid, while TfL is currently working on services at 53 of the 127 London Underground stations. ‘Leaky Feeder’ cabling is a cable run along tunnels which emits and receives radio waves, functioning as an extended antenna.

With what appears to be sound progress being made, perhaps TfL’s 2025 deadline for deploying 4G across the entire network is a realistic ambition.

Verizon plugs its 5G in London

The US and UK might not be on the best of terms at the moment, but Verizon has opened a London office to demo its 5G goods and draw attention from international customers.

After opening 5G development labs across the US and signing 5G/MEC partnership with with América Móvil, KT, Rogers, Telstra and Vodafone, Verizon is continuing to expand its remit with the new office in Holborn, central London.

“Verizon has proven expertise in delivering 5G in the US,” said Tami Erwin, Group CEO of Verizon Business. “One of the best ways of unleashing the true possibilities of 5G is getting it into the hands of innovators and visionaries. Our London facility enables our international customers to benefit from this expertise as they look to deploy 5G-enabled applications and experiences.”

The lab itself it not only geared towards engaging international customers, but also spreading its wings to develop its own ecosystem system in new markets. The aim will be to enable co-creation for new software services and hardware products in such areas as autonomous vehicles, smart communities, virtual healthcare, smart manufacturing, the industrial Internet of Things, immersive education, augmented and virtual reality and responsive gaming.

Alongside the 5G lab, the team will also open a production studio in April, where Verizon Media’s owned and operated brands, as well as partners, can create the content of tomorrow. This content could be 3D, focused on virtual reality, or hologram-based, though the objective is to create new ideas through combining technologies such as volumetric capture, motion capture and AR broadcast, with the speed and power of 5G.

“The new London studio represents our continued commitment to give our consumers access to premium next-generation experiential content across our global ecosystem of brands,” said Verizon Media CEO Guru Gowrappan.

“As we move from a 2D world into a world that includes 3D content, Verizon Media is providing our publishers and advertisers access to a cutting-edge technology platform, giving them the ability to experiment with 5G, and providing the means to distribute them at

London Police push forward with controversial facial recognition tech

The London Metropolitan Police Service has announced it will begin the operational use of Live Facial Recognition (LFR) technology, despite there still being many critics and concerns.

The technology itself has come under criticism not only for poor performance when identifying individuals, but critics have also suggested this should be deemed as a violation of privacy rights afforded to individuals in democratic societies. Despite an on-going controversial position, the London police force seem to think it has all the bases covered.

“This is an important development for the Met and one which is vital in assisting us in bearing down on violence,” said Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave. “As a modern police force, I believe that we have a duty to use new technologies to keep people safe in London.

“We are using a tried-and-tested technology and have taken a considered and transparent approach in order to arrive at this point. Similar technology is already widely used across the UK, in the private sector. Ours has been trialled by our technology teams for use in an operational policing environment.”

The initiative will start in various London locations the Met believes it will help locate the most serious offenders. The primary focus will be on knife and violent crime. It is unclear whether these deployments will be in permanently at a location, or the officers will be free to move around to other parts of the city.

As individuals pass the relevant cameras, facials maps will be compared to ‘watchlists’ created for specific areas. Should a match be confirmed, the officer will be prompted (not ordered) to approach the individual.

What Ephgrave seems to be conveniently leaving out of the above statements is that the private use of facial recognition technology is either (a) largely in trial period, or (b) highly controversial also.

In August, privacy advocacy group Big Brother Watch unveiled a report which suggested shopping centres, casinos and even publicly owned museums had implemented the technology without public consultation and had even been sharing data with local police forces without consent. This is a worrying disregard to the vitally important privacy principles of the UK.

At European level, the European Commission has been considering new rules which would extend consumer rights to include facial recognition technologies. And in the US, court cases have been raised against implementation in Illinois, while the City of San Francisco has effectively banned the technology unless in the most serious of circumstances.

The London Metropolitan Police Force has said it will delete images which are not matched to individuals on record, though considering police databases have more than 20 million records, this leaves wiggle room. If an arrest is made, the data will be kept for 31 days. Although this is a concession by the Met, Human rights organisations and privacy advocacy groups have continued to suggest such technologies are an intrusion, over-stepping the privileges afforded to the police and eroding the concept of privacy.

Interestingly enough, the same underlying issues are persisting in London; the police force seems to have pushed forward with the introduction of the technology without a comprehensive public consultation. While there is good which can be taken from this technology, there are also grave risks for abuse unless managed very effectively; the general public should be afforded the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

This does seem to be a similar case to the boiling frog. The premise of this fable is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The same could be said about facial recognition technology.

Eight trials were conducted by the London Metropolitan Police Force between 2016 and 2018, some with disastrously poor results, though few were widely reported on. In September, the UK High Court ruled facial recognition technologies could be implemented for ‘appropriate and non-arbitrary’ cases. As this is quite a nuanced and subjective way to address the status quo, authorities must be prevented from creeping influence.

Ultimately this does seem like a very brash decision to have been made, but also authorised by the political influencers of the UK. This is not to say facial recognition will not benefit society, or have a positive impact on security, but there is an impact on privacy and a risk of abuse. When there are pros and cons to a decision, it should be opened-up to public debate; we should be allowed to elect whether to sacrifice privacy in the pursuit of security.

The general public should be allowed to have their voice heard before such impactful decisions are made, but it seems the London Metropolitan Police Force does not agree with this statement.

Uber fails to meet London’s standards once again

Uber is a firm which is never too far away from controversy, and it has opened a new chapter in the UK as Transport for London (TfL) has refused to grant the firm a new private hire operator’s licence.

The latest drama has unfolded following a review from TfL after it appeared the driver identification and authentication process was being abused. A change in the Uber systems allowed unauthorised drivers to upload their photos to other Uber driver accounts and operate under false pretences. TfL has identified 14,000 trips which we completed by an unauthorised driver.

This does not mean the end of Uber in London for the moment, though it is not the most comfortable position. The firm has 21 days to appeal the decision with the Magistrates Court and will be allowed to continue to operate until the appeal process is complete. However, it no-longer has a licence to operate in London.

“As the regulator of private hire services in London we are required to make a decision today on whether Uber is fit and proper to hold a licence,” said Helen Chapman, Director of Licensing, Regulation and Charging at TfL.

“Safety is our absolute top priority. While we recognise Uber has made improvements, it is unacceptable that Uber has allowed passengers to get into minicabs with drivers who are potentially unlicensed and uninsured.

“If they choose to appeal, Uber will have the opportunity to publicly demonstrate to a magistrate whether it has put in place sufficient measures to ensure potential safety risks to passengers are eliminated.”

What is worth noting is this is a separate issue being faced by the firm, not a continuation of previous challenges. Uber has been in dispute with TfL over its licence since September 2017 and has already appealed to the Magistrates Court. As a result, Uber was granted a 15-month licence with attached conditions to fix its process systems and processes. However, once this licence expired in September, TfL opened the subsequent investigation leading to today.

TfL told Telecoms.com that it did not have the confidence in the Uber systems and processes to guarantee the safety of customers using the firm’s services. Uber will now have to demonstrate to another Magistrate Court it is capable of creating safeguards to meet the safety obligations. As a note, this is the first-time drivers in London have been found to be abusing the rules in this manner.

Next steps will see Uber back in court to demonstrate how it is making positive changes to meet the requirements of TfL. As TfL noted Uber has improved its system and processes since the original criticism, perhaps the most likely outcome is another temporary licence with conditions for improvement, though reputational damage from this saga is almost unavoidable.

5G is good, but perhaps not worth upgrading just yet

New research is suggesting London 5G speeds are getting the promised boost, though the overall experience might disappoint a few.

Global Wireless Solutions, a US network benchmarking, analysis and testing firm, released its examination of the London networks of EE, Vodafone and O2, and while there is success evident in the first months, there is still plenty of work to be done.

“The spikes in the test data reveal that promises of faster speeds can be delivered, but ultimately, it’s the consistency and reliability that is most important to consumers,” said Paul Carter, CEO of Global Wireless Solutions.

“Based on the limited number of sites with 5G antennas combined with the distance constraints of higher frequency 5G signals, it’s going to be a challenge to get 5G access in buildings.

“Given that the mobile network operators have a significant rollout ahead of them to fully realise the potential of 5G, we might also benefit from a review of restrictions governing signal mast height and placement to allow more antenna sites in more convenient locations, rather than just placing them on rooftops.”

According to the analysis, the MNOs are delivering the high-speed download experience which has been promised through 5G, though only if you are standing in the right place.

At St Pauls Cathedral, EE’s network delivered instantaneous peaks of over 470 Mbps, while 330 Mbps from O2 at Victoria Station and 320 Mbps from Vodafone in Belgrave Square also demonstrated the eye-watering speeds of these networks. These are cherry-picked examples from numerous tests throughout the city, though the trend was encouraging; 5G is delivering remarkable download speed upgrades.

What is worth noting, it this is not the gigabit download speeds promised, though you have to bear in mind these networks are operating in the world of non-standalone 5G. More will be delivered in the future as the technology progresses and matures.

This is of course encouraging, however there are two elements which dampen the parade. Firstly, the availability of these download speeds and secondly, latency.

On the latency side, Global Wireless Solutions has indicated there is no meaningful upgrade from 4G connectivity. This is not entirely surprising, as without a 5G core the full-suite of latency services will not be available, though one might have expected an incremental upgrade.

Secondly, the team has noted the drop-off rate is high. By making use of higher-frequency airwaves for 5G connectivity, coverage will be shorter. There is no way around this, the laws of physics dictate the state of play here. However, as 5G is currently being built on existing passive infrastructure, designed for 4G spectrum with larger coverage cones, the problem is unavoidable.

Over the next couple of months, governments and regulators will have to be engaged to ensure the 5G experience can be delivered. Rules on the deployment of active infrastructure will have to be massaged, as relying on rooftop infrastructure to deliver connectivity will not work everywhere. This is a bureaucratic challenge, and one which is being discussed behind closed doors.

All of this presents an interesting challenge for the telcos; how do you engage the consumer with an experience which is wholly inconsistent?

The telcos will have to be very careful. Arguably, it is more damaging to steal a customer and not deliver on the experience than not to have the customer at all. Burnt bridges are very difficult to repair after all, especially with the core mobile connectivity offering becoming increasingly commoditised.

Ultimately, 5G will be a necessity for the consumer. Data consumption habits are aggressively growing and 4G will not be able to meet the demands, both in terms of speed and network congestion. That said, the 5G proposition does look hard to justify for the moment. Compatible devices are incredibly expensive, and the network experience looks very limited. It does not appear to be worth the extra expenditure just yet.

Three goes live with 5G broadband service

UK telco Three has become the latest to join the 5G bonanza with the launch of its 5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) service in London.

With plans to launch the service in 25 cities throughout the UK, the FWA proposition looks to be a challenger to traditional broadband services. We have been told the new service will promise speeds of 100 Mbps between the hours of 8pm and 10pm, peak times for streaming in the living room, offering an alternative to fibre broadband for speed hungry customers.

“Three’s 5G is going to revolutionise the home broadband experience,” said Three CEO Dave Dyson. “No more paying for landline rental, no more waiting for engineers, and even a same day delivery option. It really is the straightforward plug and play broadband that customers have been waiting for.

“We’ve taken a simple approach with one single truly unlimited data plan to give customers the opportunity to fully explore 5G and all its exciting possibilities. The ease and immediacy of it all means home broadband using 5G is going to be key to the future of the connected home.”

Looking at the deal offered, there are some interesting elements. Three is promising a ‘plug and play’ experience, meaning customers will no-longer have to wait for an engineer to start the service, while contracts can be taken to new homes if the customer moves. This of course depends on whether Three has launched 5G in the new area, though removing the dependence on physical lines into the home can offer some benefits.

Although this does look like a promising opportunity to disrupt the traditional home broadband market, questions still remain over the long-term viability of FWA as an alternative to the delivery of connectivity over physical infrastructure.

There is a business case for FWA in the remote regions, where the commercial attractiveness of connecting ‘the last mile’ with fibre falls dramatically, though these are not the areas which Three will be targeting to start with.

The launch today is in certain areas of London, while Three is promising to connect 25 towns and cities by the end of the year. These will most likely be the more urbanised areas, this makes commercial sense after all, perhaps targeting regions where fibre penetration is lacking.

As Heavy Reading Analyst Gabriel Brown points out, £35 a month is not overly aggressive pricing, and the 100 Mbps download speeds are very achievable. Users might experience higher speeds during the day, though the proposition might well be more attractive financial and performance wise than many cable services today.

This is where Three could find its appeal. As Brown points out, accessibility to fibre services is a challenge today in the UK. If Three is able to target the regions where Openreach, Virgin Media and the fibre ‘alt-nets’ are missing, there could be a tailored audience for the speedy and reasonably priced 5G FWA service.

Played smartly, Three can drive additional revenues through the business. And while Three does already have 800,000 broadband customers with its 4G FWA service, this could be a notable driver of new revenues for the business. 5G network deployment is going to be an expensive business, therefore sweating the assets in every way possible will be an important factor.

This product opens up a new world for the challenger brand. Over the last few years, subscriber growth in mobile has been relatively flat, though should Three push towards the convergence game, there could be new opportunities to engage new customers with a new message.

Brits to get the internet on the Tube

Transport for London (TfL) has announced consumers will have another way to avoid eye contact on the London Underground from next year.

Starting on the Jubilee line from March 2020, 4G data services will be introduced to the cramp and sweaty tunnels which move millions of Londoners around the city each day. For those who dread the prospect of talking to somebody else during the morning commute, this will be another way to avoid any contact with humans.

“The London Underground network is an incredibly challenging environment in which to deliver technological improvements, but we are now well on the path to delivering mobile connectivity within our stations and tunnels,” said Shashi Verma, TfL’s CTO.

“We have begun the complex work to allow our customers to be able to get phone reception within our tunnels from March 2020, with more stations and lines coming online during the coming years.”

This is of course an immensely complicated job when you consider the environment and the fact most of the underground infrastructure was designed in the years before the internet was even a concept. That said, TfL has now laid hundreds of miles of cables to enable the connectivity and is currently in discussions with the telcos to deliver connectivity underground.

“I’m delighted that we will be introducing mobile connectivity to the London Underground from next March,” said London Mayor Sadiq Khan. “This is a really important step for the millions of people who use the Tube each year.

“Introducing 4G and, in the future, 5G will help Londoners and visitors keep in touch and get the latest travel information while on the go. London is the best place to live, visit and work – and projects like this will help make it even better.”

TfL is currently trialling 2G, 3G and 4G mobile services along a section of tunnels between Westminster and Canning Town, with the next stage of procurement for the concessionaire beginning shortly. TfL plans to award the connectivity contract by next summer.

UK goes through the gears in autonomous driving race

The US, China and Japan have been moving ahead swiftly in the race to put autonomous vehicles on public roads, but new trials in West London perhaps indicate the UK is not that far behind.

Following successful trials through Oxford town-centre, a new initiative has been announced by the DRIVEN consortium, an Innovate UK funded initiative focused on introducing Level 4 autonomous vehicles. This project will be mapping the streets of Hounslow, expecting to launch trials in the area by this Christmas, before planning to run a fleet of autonomous vehicles between Oxford and London in 2019.

This initiative will be led by Oxford University spin-off Oxbotica, an autonomous vehicle software provider, but also supported by insurance partner AXA, while Nominet will be testing data transfer between vehicles and consortium partners as part of the development of a robust cyber security model for self-driving vehicles.

“Being autonomous before Christmas will showcase the huge amount of work Oxbotica’s expert team of engineers has completed since the DRIVEN consortium was established,” said Graeme Smith, CEO of Oxbotica. “These trials further demonstrate to the wider UK public that connected and autonomous vehicles will play an important role in the future of transport. This milestone shows the advanced state of our capabilities and firmly keeps us on the road to providing the technology needed to revolutionise road travel.”

While this might excite (or terrify) the locals, this is not the only self-driving news to emerge out of the UK in the last week.

Up in Scotland, the country’s first self-driving buses will be tested through a 14-mile route between Fife and Edinburgh across the Forth Bridge. The single-decker buses will require a human driver to be present at all times, though unmanned tests will take place in the depot parking the vehicles and also taking them through the washing machine.

Back in London, cab firm Addison Lee and Jaguar Land Rover have also announced trials through the city. Addison Lee hopes to have the entirety of the Borough of Greenwich covered with a service by 2021, while Jaguar Land Rover also plan to deliver a ‘premium mobility service’ across the capital using driverless Discovery cars. Details are relatively thin for the moment, though it is certainly encouraging to see such trials emerge.

As with most technology developments, the UK has generally been perceived to be behind the trend. In this instance, the US has been leading the way, with numerous trials across the country, though Japan and China have also been steaming ahead. These trials should not suggest the UK is on par with these technology powerhouses, but at least it is seemingly leading the chasing peloton. The tests also offer a bit more credibility to the Government ambition of having autonomous vehicles on the road by 2021.

The ambitious claim came from UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond last year, promising ‘genuine’ driverless vehicles on the road by 2021. We are still sceptical as to how much of a revolution these vehicles will actually be, public incredulity and resistance to change will perhaps make this more of an evolution over decades, though this will not score the appropriate level of political points.

A recent survey from OpenText suggests 31% of UK respondents believe there will be more autonomous vehicles on the roads than human-driven ones over the next 10-15 years, though this is down from the 66% who answered the same question positively 12 months ago. In 2017, 24% said they would feel comfortable being a passenger in an autonomous car, yet this figure has dropped to 19% in this year’s edition. It seems the excitement and confidence in the technology is still not there.

This is an area which the government and industry are yet to tackle; the general public. Irrelevant as to whether the technology is advancing at lightning speed, without consumer acceptance the technology will never be a success. These are after all the people who will buy the vehicles, or choose between a driverless and human-powered taxi. Without approval of the general public, this technology will fail.

The UK is still very much a fast-follower when it comes to technology adoption, though this is not necessarily the worst position to be in. As it stands, ‘best of the rest’ is probably an appropriate title as the US, China and Japan pave the way, but progress is being made.

Uber decision shows London is behind the times

In light of Transport for London deciding not to renew Uber’s license to operate in the capital, there has been a wave of support for the ride-hailing service.

Future Cities Catapult is one of those organizations which is supporting Uber, not because it’s employees want cheap rides home, but because the use of technology to disrupt the status quo is what all digital entrepreneurs should be aiming for.

“Uber’s story has been so often told and it’s easy to get caught up in the intrigues of Uber’s office politics and the drama of Uber’s street politics with the cabbies,” said Rushi Rama, Strategy, Markets and Standards Team Lead at Future Cities Catapult. “But there is a bigger picture to consider.

“Uber’s aggressive expansion is what forced the rest of the sector to embrace the digital age for their customers. Uber represents the disruptive force of digital technology overturning entrenched business models. In the process, companies like Uber and Airbnb change their industries and life for millions.”

Rama has a point. Uber only begun because it spotted an opportunity to use technology in way which would make money and offer a useful service to customers. For everything wrong which Uber is accused of, there is one reason why its service (or one very similar) will continue; it offered customers something they wanted, at a price they could afford.

For those who lived in London prior to the Uber takeover, the scramble home was a nightmare after the pubs kicked out. More often than not, it was either a sprint to the nearest tube or enduring the ‘pleasures’ of the night bus. Cabs were either for those with expense accounts, in groups or had more money than sense. The taxi trade in the city centre made their own problems, either charging too much to get back out to Zone Three, or flat out refusing to go that far out of their way. Customer centric wasn’t a phrase which existed here.

Uber changed the game. It was cost effective, you could hail a cab when you waited in the pub and the number of taxis ensured the supply/demand didn’t exploit the customer. Uber embraced technological advances and created a service which was loved by the customer. Just ask the 787,810 people who have signed a petition to save the service (at the time of writing). It was a service created for the customer, not the cabbies. Yes, Uber made a load of cash, but they kept customers happy.

“The quickest and easiest response to this challenge is to slow the pace of change, or stop it outright,” said Rama. “And this looks to have been the case in cities and countries around the world. In most cases, as in London, the issue is safety, and there it is hard to argue that citizens should not be protected. But this could easily slip into protection of vested and monopolistic interests.”

Uber might have some questionable ethics and business processes, but those are the issues which need to be addressed. Banning the service, or at least attempting to, is not the right way to go about it. It is after all a service which benefits the customer; shouldn’t local governments and authorities be encouraging these ideas? Why not address the individual problems? If someone has a rash on their wrist, you treat it with ointment; you don’t amputate the entire arm.

Governments have always struggled to keep up with the pace of change. Perhaps the easiest way to address the challenge is to slow its progress? It is the simple solution which does not benefit the customer. And it certainly doesn’t shine the forward thinking light onto London; no wonder Silicon Roundabout is still a roundabout of mediocrity.

Why not undue the rest of the digital economy? Ban AirBnB because it is providing competition to mainstream hotels? Should we eradicate eBay and Amazon so the book stores can have a better chance? Or how about destroying the internet so traditional media channels can flourish again? Should other disruptors in the digital economy be afraid of progressing too quickly? Should Silicon Valley just down tools for the moment and wait for the boresome bureaucrats around the world to catch up?

“Perhaps a better approach to the challenge is to do the work ahead of time – if we can anticipate the issues that digital disruption will bring, then we can put in place strategies and regulatory frameworks appropriate for them,” said Rama.

TfL should investigate Uber, and the organization should be held accountable to standards which are deemed appropriate for the city. But banning disruptive technologies which offer a clear benefit to the general public is not the right answer. Transport for London should be slightly embarrassed by such actions, because it is essentially an omission of fault. It wasn’t ready to regulate new ideas like Uber, failed to catch up in the following years and the situation got away from its grasp.

A ban will give it a chance to get back into the game, but if this approach was taken with every technological breakthrough, would there be any such thing as progress?