Media: All About ... Mobile connectivity underground

By Alasdair Reid, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 05 November 2010 12:00AM

Will operators be able to install wi-fi and 3G by 2012?

Glaswegians are suitably proud of the fact that their city boasts one of only three underground railway systems in the UK. Equally, they are characteristically quick to bristle with indignation if you belittle it by suggesting that, with its 15 stations looped in a tight circle, it is really only a toy Tube.

But as of last week, the Glasgow Subway, to give it its proper title, has something that London can only dream of - mobile connectivity underground.

London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, will have watched this development with interest. After all, last month he was making noises about driving forward a similar scheme in London. This week, a six-month wi-fi test on the platforms and in the ticket hall of Charing Cross station launched.

There's always been a tacit understanding that the 2012 London Olympics would lead to long-term benefits for the whole of the capital. Unfortunately, the precise details have tended to be rather vague.

But there's been a growing sense of disquiet about what's really in it (apart from traffic jams) for the rest of us. However, back in September, Johnson revealed that he'd hit upon a half-decent idea for a genuine legacy project.

He was reported to have pledged to "bash heads together in the mobile industry" to ensure that the infrastructure is in place underground to deliver 3G and wi-fi on the Tube before the Games' Opening Ceremony on 27 July 2012.

The heads in question - those, collectively, belonging to O2, Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile and 3 - have responded largely favourably. To react otherwise, after all, would have been to court PR disaster.

Yet sceptics remain to be convinced. They believe, for instance, that the estimated cost of installing the infrastructure - £100 million - is a rather optimistic guess. After all, with more than 250 stations and more than 250 miles of track, it's slightly larger than the Glasgow system. And some of its lines, for instance the Jubilee, are buried rather deeper.

On the other hand, this is, when all the rocket science rhetoric is set aside, just a big wiring job. And the potential commercial benefits, not least from an advertising point of view, are substantial.

1. Glasgow's underground connectivity infrastructure was installed for Strathclyde Partnership for Transport by the wi-fi specialist The Cloud, working in partnership with Arqiva, the communications engineering company used by many media companies. The cost of the project has yet to be disclosed. The system, however, only provides mobile access on the platforms of the network's 15 stations. Passengers in carriages in tunnels between stations will have no reliable signal.

2. Since 2005, when Transport for London confirmed it was assessing its options in this area (and its target back then was to have a system in place by 2008), the assumption has always been that London would need connectivity in carriages as well as on platforms - making it the equal of some other major European underground railway networks such as the Paris Metro. This is a vastly more expensive option, as all deep tunnels would have to be turned into giant antenna conduits.

3. Other European underground metro systems with various degrees of connectivity include Turin, Hamburg, Budapest and Madrid. Beijing put a system in place for the 2008 Olympics.

4. The mobile operators appear keen to see progress - and are even claiming that, far from needing their heads bashed together, they have actually been taking a lead. "We approached the Mayor's office about a year ago and have been a catalyst in getting the project off the ground together with the other operators," Guy Laurence, the chief executive of Vodafone UK, told Campaign last week. "We're very supportive of giving customers a great experience during and after the Olympics by extending the network to parts or all of the Tube. There are a number of technical and funding issues still outstanding but there are regular meetings ongoing to resolve these and we are very hopeful there will be a successful outcome."

5. Commercial opportunities will include advertiser-developed mobile apps providing local area guides around Underground stations; and initiatives to encourage consumers to interact directly with transport advertising formats.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

ADVERTISERS

- The potential here can hardly be overestimated. The Tube, with around one billion passenger journeys each year, is host to a massive captive audience.

- Susie Redfern, an account director at the outdoor specialist IPM, argues that the greatest benefit will come from individuals reacting directly with posters.

- She explains: "Advertisers are always keen to see proof that an ad has stimulated a response - and with outdoor advertising, that's not always easy to do. However, if an ad gives a specific URL and people respond directly to that URL, then that is measurable. But it has to be done properly. A lot will depend on the creative work and on the attitude of advertisers - they will have to be sensitive to what people want."

- Nick Mawditt, the global director of insight and marketing at Kinetic, adds: "Clearly, ads on the Underground could carry shortcodes, QR codes or links to websites that consumers can respond to immediately. This is already happening above ground, but an enclosed environment where dwell-time is a key factor will offer real opportunities for interaction."

CONTRACTORS

- The current holder of the Transport for London advertising contract is CBS Outdoor. Underground connectivity could revolutionise this side of its business and trigger another wave of investment.

- CBS has only recently completed a programme of upgrades, including the installation of hundreds of digital screens, promised when it retained the franchise back in 2006.

- The next wave, if and when more people are using their mobile devices underground, will involve building more interactive capabilities into selected sites.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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