European Railways Irrationally Shun Wireless

By Guy Kewney  |  Posted 2004-04-07 Print this article Print

Why is it so much easier to prove wireless safe in an aircraft than on the ground?

Quick question: Where, in Europes biggest capital city, London, can you not place an emergency services call to fire, police or ambulance? Its an easy answer: the London Underground railway. You cant get wireless Internet on the Underground, either. Why? "Its not safe." Why is it so much easier to prove wireless safe in an aircraft than on the ground? Its not just the subway trains that are dithering about going wireless, after all; its the whole darned antiquated rail network.
This month is when The Boeing Co.s high-speed Internet service, called Connexion, will go live with Wi-Fi in the sky on four airlines. Meanwhile, Europes railways are stuck at the buffers.
The easy answer for whats holding it up is "regulation"—and that is part of the truth. Europes rail networks are, mostly, the pride of each country. Even if you take a train like the Eurostar—the one that goes under the sea between Britain and France—you can very easily tell which country youre in by the quality of the steel under your wheels. But nobody is going to persuade me that the railways are inherently less safe than the airways. And more to the point, it wouldnt take anybody more than a day or two to realize that the problem with the rail people has nothing to do with safety, or perceived danger, or even regulatory issues. Those are just excuses, excuses. Every one of the big mobile phone operators has approached the Underground at some stage with a plan for enabling wireless below the surface of the city; each one has given up. And they are, clearly, not just discouraged. Theyre browbeaten. One participant in this debate actually said that there was no point in trying. "After all, theres the nuisance," he said. "Just think of everybody on the train with their mobile phones ringing. And the inevitable Im on the train! conversations. It wouldnt be popular." Youd be forgiven if you assumed the speaker was an antique, craggy Yorkshireman, disapproving of all this new technology stuff and glaring at kids with their iPods turned up almost to the point of audibility. But no; this was an eager young technocrat who works for Orange, which is actually a leader in the battle to get Wi-Fi onto the trains. You might also get the impression that there was no money to be made out of the enterprise. You might also assume that the experiment of underground phone use had been tried and found to fail. Not so. Anybody who has been to Hong Kong or Singapore will know that mobile phones work there as well as anywhere, and nobody bats an eyelid when people make or take calls. And the trains dont crash. The "no money" argument has been officially stated. Im not just making that up. Incredibly, in a world where location-based Internet services are one of the white hopes for the future, the rail authorities cant see any point in providing services to people who are travelling to an unfamiliar place and might be unsure of what to do when they get there. The "unsafe" argument is based on the assumption that some magic, antique, Harry Potter device, whose function is long forgotten but without which the coaches will come off the rails, will suffer from interference if the rail authorities put transmitters in the tunnels. I asked one mole, whom I found blinking in the sunshine, "Do you know anybody who turns their mobile phone off when they go into the Underground rail system?" He admitted that if there were such people, and he thought there must be, hed never met one of them. He himself didnt bother switching off his phone, he conceded. And yes, he knew that when the phones are cut off from their cells, they broadcast loudly, trying to find one. Yes, he knew that literally millions of such transceivers travel through his tunnels every day, radiating on exactly the frequencies he is so terrified of allowing. "But the tunnels are a wave guide, who knows what effect ..." Short answer: If microwave transmitters could make a train crash, it would already have happened. There are already large sections of the subterranean network where the carriages come close enough to the surface and in which we know people can use their phones, and nothing goes wrong. But nobody is prepared to be the brave person who says, "Yes, its safe, lets do it." So, next time you sit on one of the worlds major antique subway systems, and see someone attacked, and you want to pull out your phone and describe the attackers so that they can be intercepted at the next station … well, heres why it wouldnt be a good idea: "It wouldnt be safe. If you had Wi-Fi and mobile phone signals underground, then people would use this stuff. And then theyd pull their phones and PDAs and even their notebooks out of their bags, and thieves would see them and try to steal them. And crime would go up, not down." Again, not an elderly Luddite from the steam age. That was a sales executive for a mobile phone network. Check out eWEEKs Mobile & Wireless Center at for the latest news, reviews and analysis. Be sure to add our mobile and wireless news feed to your RSS newsreader or My Yahoo page:  

Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

Rocket Fuel