Mobile Network going Underground


Written by Tshepo Mokoena
21 Monday 21st February 2011

Looks like those Cold War fears are alive and kicking, as the gadget press questions ulterior motives behind Chinese telecom supplier Huawei's moves towards London's tube. The rapidly-growing company has pretty much offered up a £50 million investment gift 'from one Olympic nation to another'. Some may start running from what they believe to be a Trojan horse, but it's first probably important to dig deeper.

Ok, principally London and New York are both racing to get mobile coverage in their underground networks sorted first. London's got the added incentive and pressure of rolling out the programme by the 2012 Olympics, to impress the hordes of tourists and give Londoners another badge of pride to wear during the massive event. However the big, fat expensive elephant in the room is the £150 million price-tag on any sort of comprehensive mobile phone service on such an extensive network. Mayor Boris Johnson's already been flailing about and threatening to "bash heads together in the mobile phone industry" as the struggle to secure a provider deal over the last nine months has dragged on. Well, it seems he may be changing his tack altogether now.

Johnson on the Tube

As the FT and a few tech news sites report, Vodafone and O2 have been pushed to the fore of the installation of Huawei's freebie equipment if the deal goes through. Still, before anyone starts freaking out and waving a red warning flag (too easy) nothing is written in stone yet. The deal's progress will stand as a bit of an ideological milestone for the murky meeting place between business and geopolitics. It'll be interesting to see whether Boris goes for the balance sheets over national security concerns in the face of what could look like a hypocritical shun of free market rhetoric.

American telecoms company Sprint has already taken the political route, blocking Huawei from a huge contract bid following a direct call from the Department of Defense to Sprint’s CEO. Hmm. Perhaps Huawei President Ren Zhengfei’s background in military technology with the People’s Liberation Army isn’t exactly warming the hearts of potential business partners.

In any case, it remains to be seen how this will all pan out for London’s tube. With BT already piloting an underground wi-fi scheme at Charing Cross consumers may well be excited enough about tweeting on the tube to forget how the service came to be.

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