20 minutes is too long without my smartphone

by Sally Bercow

Not being a sporty sort, the most exciting thing I’d read about the Olympics – by far – was that they would usher in the use of mobile phones on the London Underground. Hurrah ­– an end to the frustration of losing my signal every time I take the tube. I’ll soon be able to tweet and text as I trundle round the Circle. I shall do my Ocado shop from the (relative) comfort of the Jubilee line. No more shall I have to time my tube journeys around people who (allegedly) only have 10 minute “windows” to take calls in their frightfully high-powered days.

And then Boris goes and announces last week that the project to install an underground 3G network has been shelved, at least for now. It seems that it’s too technically complex to complete in time for the Olympics and some reports suggest there was a ding-dong over funding (the mobile networks and the Chinese telecoms company huawei had been expected to pick up the tab, estimated at around £100 million).

I was gutted. By any standard, it’s a crushing blow. How are we meant to morph into David Cameron’s “nation of entrepreneurs” if we can’t even do business on the run, for goodness sake? Mobiles on the tube will boost London’s economy. How much harder will it be to “drive growth” if you can’t stay in range and in touch with the world 24/7? Just think how useful it would be to text your clients and reassure them that, ever the true professional, you are en route but hampered by signalling problems. Other cities – Paris, Hong Kong, Barcelona – have sorted it, why is London such a dinosaur? Never mind the much-maligned civil service, the tube is a strong contender for the “enemy of enterprise” crown.

And it would be a great way for transport for London (TfL) to raise revenue. The millions of pounds the tube would bring in from mobile phone operators could be used to install air conditioning. Or to lower fares. Or both.

And entrepreneurial and revenue-generating benefits aside, a phone line would be a boon in an emergency. As a tube worker told the July 7 inquests  – he’d have given up a year’s salary for an effective phone or radio so that he could summon help for the dying and injured.

Nevertheless, despite the plethora of benefits, Twitter (for all its technophilic, progressive credentials) told me that lots of people were actually pleased when Boris announced that the mobiles-on-tubes project had fallen through. “The tube is a stress-free haven from phone calls and emails”, they tweeted. “We don’t want people yakking away inanely”, they proclaimed.

You have got to be kidding – the tube an oasis of calm? It’s overcrowded, hot and sweaty, not to mention extremely noisy as it rattles its way through the tunnels. And at least with a mobile and data signal, you’d be able to take your mind off the odd passenger’s overpowering BO or the pungent tuna sandwich the woman opposite is taking forever to eat.

And in any case, for those really bothered about “noise pollution”, Boris had promised “quiet carriages”. Mind you, how he was going to make that work was anyone’s guess – it’s not often you get a choice about which carriage you squeeze into. But never mind, the good intention was there (bless Boris, or is it just me who finds him impossible to dislike, even though I can’t stand toffs as a breed)?

As for the argument that mobile phones put the tube at greater risk of a terrorist threat, that’s scare-mongering, pure and simple. True, the 2004 Madrid train bombers used mobile phones – but they detonated the bombs by the phones’ timer functions, not a signal (the timer works independently, regardless of whether or not the phone can receive a signal). So the risk of a terrorist attack would be no greater than it is now.

It’s all very well for Boris to focus on the positive and big-up his plan to install wi fi networks at up to 120 tube stations before the Olympics. Sure, it’s a start but it’s a feeble substitute for full mobile and data coverage underground. After all, what’s the point of wi-fi that works on the platforms but not in the tunnels? Most of us only spend a few minutes waiting on platforms (Circle line excepted – the gaps between trains are preposterously long) but a good 20 minutes or so in the tunnels. And tube platforms are crowded enough as it is, without passengers hanging around sending that last email or making a quick call via Skype.

So we Londoners are destined to hang around shivering outside tube stations, waiting for that important text, phone call or email, for some time to come. Don’t lose sight of it Boris – London’s entrepreneurs, social network addicts, online shopaholics and loved-up texters are all counting on you  to sort it. Stop faffing around, man, and get on with it.

Sally Bercow is a Labour activist and a writer and broadcaster.

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8 Responses to “20 minutes is too long without my smartphone”

  1. iain ker says:

    I thought – my God even for this site that’s a vacuous article.

    Then I noticed the name of the contributor – self-promoter, ‘activist’, z-list sleb, sheet-wearer, and wife of someone semi-well-known.

    Here’s me thinking that it would be rather beneath the serious deep-thinking intellectuals on here to get – I use the word ‘star’ losely here – starstruck.


  2. Columbus Clunge says:


    I mean…really?

  3. Have to admit to agreeing with Sally – with this at least 🙂

    What’s wrong with wanting to be able to use your phone on the Underground?

    Okay so stop people making calls (bloody City Boys yah yah yah would drive me mad) but what’s wrong with being able to text a client or the family that you’re late / ontime / early?

    Why not be able to work online from that laptop you bought yourself to make the most of the 30 minute commute each way?

    More importantly, why not be able to be a woman on the Tube late at night and feel at least a little bit safer.

    Trust me I am not Sally’s biggest fan but I think she’s got it right on this one.

  4. Auntie Edna says:

    Honestly Sally, you should know that the only people allowed to contribute here must be WORTHY, and write A Level essays on WORTHY SUBJECTS, and try their best to be inaccessible to anyone other than political wonks without a sense of humour. Keep it up gal.

  5. Nigel Toye says:

    I cannot agree with you. Mobile phones are a curse and anywhere I can get away from them is a blissful place. There is nothing worse than the endless drivel calls you have to listen to on trains or buses sometimes.
    Ban them, I say

  6. Hate Labour says:

    Funny how you deny who you are all the time. You fill every criteria, your a “toff.”

  7. Roger says:


    Are you being ironic?

    Because subtly self-deprecating semi-irony is fiendishly difficult to manage

    I gave up on it a long time ago as nobody ever seemed to get it – and unlike you I don’t have a public profile of any sort to damage.

  8. Politandy says:

    So far the tube is the only public space where one is not pesterd by mobile phone caller addicts. ‘Hi darling; I am in the tube; ohh you are still in bed…..blaa blaa
    Obviously Bercow is one of these stupid creatures who just wants to waste money for no ones good!

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