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.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.