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.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.