Sadiq Khan promises half a million “mini-masts” to boost London’s mobile coverage

The humble lamp post. Image: Getty.

This is one for the smartphone junkies. Actually, that’s pretty much everyone – Ofcom proudly announced in 2015 that the UK is a ‘smartphone society’, with 80 per cent of adults owning a smartphone – so the vast majority of you will be thrilled to hear about the new initiative that will see half a million small cell transmitters installed around London.

These mini-masts will be attached to street furniture (that is, lampposts and so forth) and publicly-owned buildings, ensuring vastly improved network coverage among the capital’s winding streets. This big reveal follows mayor Sadiq Khan’s pledge last year to boost digital connectivity and deal with London’s ‘not-spots’.

The idea is hardly new: the private sector was launching similar projects as far back as 2006. But these initiatives have always been piecemeal, coming from individual suppliers.

This new iteration will see collaboration between city hall and local councils, allowing for much wider coverage than that afforded by the odd privately owned office or pub. Using smaller transmitters brings another advantage: they are much easier to install, and don’t require road closures or big structural changes inherent in larger cell masts.

Other public bodies in the capital have dabbled in this area. The City of London Corporation was wildly successful last year in establishing a publicly accessible free-to-use wifi across the whole of the Square Mile. Replacing the existing Sky Wifi, the new network runs off 150 wireless access points attached to the City’s street furniture. Amazingly, the whole project was delivered in just nine months. Khan is hoping to mirror this efficiency with contracts awarded for the mini-mast rollout by Summer this year.


London’s future small cell network will be all important when the next generation 5G network finally arrives. That’s due some time in the early 2020s, and telecoms company O2 reckons that, by 2026, it will add over £7bn a year to the economy. It’s sweet they think that everyone will be working hard on the buses and tube lines (yes it’s going underground as well), when really we’ll be spending our commutes streaming Netflix and sending snarky tweets.

As stoked as we should be for this technological makeover, it is long overdue. A report from the London Assembly last year found the capital’s phone coverage was abysmal. Under 75 per cent of London has 4G coverage, placing it in the bottom five of all UK cities; it ranks 30th out of 63 on high speed broadband, too. The report concluded with a warning, that its shoddy phone connections meant that, “London’s success and international competitiveness are under threat”.

These failings didn’t sneak up on us. During the 2012 Olympics, networks became overloaded through heavy use. And as Londoners use their smartphones to watch ever more Netflix these mini-mast improvements arrive in the nick of time.

Khan is also reaching out to Londoners to help form his Smart London Plan, which will look at how technology can improve life in the capital. Good to see the capital is finally joining the 21st century.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.