Signal failure - visitors to the Olympics will not be able to make calls on the Tube

The prospect of voice calls on London Underground looks bleak, but there is hope for Wi-Fi

Signal failure -  visitors to the Olympics will  not be able to make calls on the Tube
Apart from security and safety, there is the major question of what kind of communications visitors can expect during the 2012 Games. Will visitors be able to use phones on the Underground? Will they have access to data services and high speed internet?

High tech comms are a matter of national pride for the host country. The stupendous CGI-enhanced fireworks at the opening ceremony in Beijing show the lengths to which host nations will go. The same applies to Britain's games. But the climate here, with fears over public spending and fragile confidence following the credit crunch, is markedly different.

In Beijing, visitors not only had continuous mobile reception; the Chinese authorities were so keen to demonstrate their technological prowess that they streamed live video to buses and trains.

In the UK, there is uncertainty over what the goals are. Public authorities claim it is too early to say what comms will be like. With less than two years to go, if we don't even know what the goal is, what chance is there of achieving it? More plausibly, no one is rushing to become a hostage to fortune by making fresh promises this side of the General Election, which is now just months away and certain to be dominated by public spending cuts.

London Underground Limited (LUL) began trials into mobile phone use on its network in 2005. It has taken around two years to make significant progress, and in 2007, it announced an official tender.

However, LUL complained that suppliers - while demonstrating that phone use in the Underground was feasible - had failed to come up with a cost effective way to move forward. Since then, the trial has gone cold.

Investigations by Wireless give some cause for optimism, however. Hugh Robertson, Conservative Olympics spokesperson, tells us he believes there is a clear 'aspiration' to provide underground comms, although he stresses his main responsibility is for construction projects.

'It never occurred to me they wouldn't have [mobile reception]. I think there is an aspiration to fix [lack of coverage] by 2012. I think it is our intention to ensure there is mobile reception throughout the tube by 2012.

'We got involved about a year ago in the question of spectrum allocation for 2012, but that is really the extent of my involvement.'

It is unclear who would have the power to set a policy goal or provide mobile phone communications on rail and Underground. The Olympic Development Agency (ODA) has responsibility for transport, as well as construction, but an ODA spokesperson says it wouldn't be them: 'If it is underground, it would be TfL, if it's overground, it would be the individual train operators and LUL, as it runs overground services. It could also be the Mayor of London's Office.'

The question is - who will pull that little lot together and get them to agree on what should be done? No one was willing or able to give a clear statement to Wireless.

London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, is the most likely catalyst for change. He has London's interests at heart, and knows that it would be a massive boost to the capital - especially when a growing number of international cities now have seamless phone and data communications.

Johnson has clearly been impressed by the Wireless Beijing project (see box, left). He has called on the Government to divert money from the £300m earmarked to help poor families get online and instead, invest it in the Underground.

Johnson tells BBC London radio: 'One thing I learnt from the Chinese [is] we've got to have a Wi-Fi city for the Olympics in 2012. Nevermind having the internet, what we need is a city where anywhere you go, you can log on, or access the web.

'They've done it in other parts of the world, so why can't we do it? Let's do it beginning in Stratford in this fantastic area of opportunity.'

Money appears to be the reason. LUL tells Wireless: 'Our position has not changed. We tendered for a trial of mobile phone technology on the Waterloo and City line, but the market has yet to provide a commercially viable solution. Naturally, if funding was found from external sources we would give consideration to how a system might  be implemented on the tube and any decision would take account of our customers' views.'
The spokeswoman adds: 'The Underground is actually 55% above ground, where people are able to get phone signal.'

However, things seem to be stirring on the high speed internet front. Our investigations have revealed that LUL has begun holding talks with suppliers on providing streaming video into deep level stations.

'We are talking with London Underground and London Transport as a potential tenderer on the possible technical options. It could be something along the lines of providing a broadband link to a central hub, then Wi-Fi or WiMax from there.'

Whether these discussions will go any further than the aborted tendering process for mobile phone communications remains to be seen. What is clear is that politics will be the key factor in determining to what extent the aspirations for a high-tech wireless London are achieved.

Wireless Beijing
The Chinese set the bar for communications technology with the 2008 Olympics. The Wireless Beijing project's goal was for any time, anywhere access of the internet, video streaming, mobile data and intelligence services.

One thousand wireless broadband access points were rolled out over 30 miles in the central business and Olympics areas.

Visitors were promised the ability to share 'experiences as they happen', while reporters were told they would have 'instant reliable access' to send stories back to base. While Wireless can't vouch that this level of service was achieved, the Beijing Games were generally agreed to be a huge step forward from the half completed building projects of the 2004 Athens Games.

The key players in the Wireless Beijing project were service provider CECT-Chinacom and wireless mesh broadband supplier Azalea Networks.

How OFCOM will manage spectrum
One aspect of organising the Games is ensuring there is sufficient wireless spectrum. Communications regulator Ofcom is overseeing this, and has identified broadcasting as a key area within its remit.

Wireless cameras and video equipment will take up huge amounts of spectrum at the Games. Controversially, Ofcom is planning to 'borrow' spectrum from the MoD and Civil Aviation Authority to meet this demand.

These bodies have committed to making some of the spectrum they hold available for temporary use for the London 2012 Games, subject to necessary arrangements, to ensure that essential defence and safety of life services are protected. Ofcom is also working with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to make capacity available in the spectrum for maritime services.

Ofcom also expects demand for Satellite News Gathering (SNG) to be high at London 2012 Games venues. There has been a trend for outside broadcasts to use this method to deliver rapid news reports at lower resolution. In the UK, there are some geographic restrictions on SNG use in close proximity to airports and other sensitive sites, although these are unlikely to apply with the Olympic Games. Ofcom will use a streamline licensing system for SNG terminal deployments, focusing on 11GHz and 14GHz SNG operations to enable rapid deployment of SNG within the 2012 Games venues.
Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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