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Transport for London's Small Cell and Wi-Fi plans

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Transport for London's Small Cell and Wi-Fi plans


Interview with Robert Woolley, Senior Category Manager, Transport for London

Transport for London is working with Bombardier Transportation to offer free Wi-Fi and 4G on Cross Rail trains. What opportunities and challenges does this deployment pose for TFL?

There are two challenges – economic and technical. Economically we need a solution which will provide sufficient quality of service whilst being affordable – our main concern is the opex for transmission.  Technically there is the issue of suitable cellular coverage above ground for transmission.  There are potentially interesting commercial opportunities relating to advertising, but overall the business case for on-train wi-fi is challenging.

TFL has prioritised small cell deployment for its street assets. Why are these plans deemed necessary?

TfL has extensive street assets; in addition to owning the majority of London’s bus shelters we are also are the highway authority for the Red Route Network.  We have had strong market interest and technical trials which demonstrate small cells work very well on our assets.  London is highly profitable for Mobile Network Operators but it is hard to serve, and macro deployments are expensive and time consuming.

We have a big problem with streetscape. Our trials with Mobile Network Operators have been technically successful but have failed to pass the streetscape issue. We need to work with vendors and street furniture manufacturers to come up with stealth solutions which allow us to host small cells in a manner which is pretty much invisible.

You are working with mobile operators to deploy macro and micro cells in TFL owned buildings. Are there any new and exciting news you want to share?

We offer Major Site Agreements to the market; we don’t include the insides of stations or our road to rail tunnels in these. But most of our assets are available.

I think the key thing we’ve found working with our customers is that our very varied range of assets are surprisingly good for macro deployment.  We have found that the ventilation shafts for the Underground are very good for getting coverage in difficult residential areas; the outside of Underground stations are looking promising for microcell deployment.

Microcell deployment on the outside of London Underground stations is potentially very interesting for the MNOs; these are points of entry onto cellular networks where handsets are authenticated and brought into service which puts pressure on the network. A microcell deployed at an LU station could take this load off the macro layer.

In some respects its back to the future – many older readers of this will remember London Underground stations hosting CT2 base stations 25 years ago – Rabbit and Zonephone.

Obvious challenges present themselves when large and complex public organisations attempt to develop their presence in the telecoms sector. What lessons has TFL learnt in the last couple of years that will streamline any future plans?

Our internal stakeholders probably give us the biggest challenges. There is an education process; my colleagues are used to buying bespoke equipment – for example trains or street furniture. I’m trying to get them to understand that the dynamics of selling is that we can’t expect 200 specially sized small cells; we need to work with the market.

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