New York’s underground wifi & calls put London to shame

By Alex Wood 9 January 2017
image: istock/janifest

Meanwhile on a bus in London...

While London grinds to a halt thanks to yet another strike, New York’s transport system took a giant leap forward into the future.

Starting this week, New Yorkers will enjoy wifi and mobile signal across every one of the city’s 278 underground stations. $300m has been sunk into the project, which will make London’s dormant, disconnected underground network look practically medieval.

Each underground station in NYC now has full signal from all of the major US networks, plus wifi access provided by Boingo, a brand you may recognise from airport terminals.

Ahead of schedule

As if this wasn’t enough, the Big Apple has another thing to show off while Londoners stand in the rain waiting for a replacement bus – New York’s project was completed years ahead of schedule.

When’s the last time you heard a public telecoms project being delivered earlier than planned?

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has a lot to be proud of, the mobile signal went city-wide 2 years early, and wifi was installed a year ahead of expectations.

Small catch

There’s always a catch. For now, both the mobile and wifi signals will only be found inside the stations.

Unfortunately, just like London’s ageing underground network, much of the NYC subway tunnels were constructed long before wifi (or even computers) existed, making it difficult to get connected up.

But New York’s transport authority says plans are in place to expand it into tunnels in the future, unlike in London, where the idea of mobile signal has been something of a running joke since the 2012 Olympics.

Even when Chinese telecoms giant Huawei offered to pay half of the estimated £100m bill to get the whole network connected, political meddling stopped the process dead in its tracks.

Why this matters

Wifi at underground stations is a great start (even if it is half-arsed in London), but having mobile signal puts a city in a whole other league. It’s universal – there’s no need to login or register and it’s perfect for busy tourists and business travellers, roaming on domestic mobile networks.

Just look at cities like Seoul and Shanghai with full mobile connectivity everywhere including stations and tunnels. Small changes like these put rival global cities light years ahead of the old guard like London.

Four years after wifi first appeared on London’s underground network, there are still stations that lack any signal at all. And surely, if wifi can be installed inside our stations – what’s stopping mobile signal being added too?

Getting a phone signal underground will be the last thing on many London commuters minds today as they brace themselves for an unpleasant journey home. But once the trains get moving again, let’s not leave London’s underground behind.