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.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.