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.

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.

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?