Chinese firm Huawei is bidding to provide £50m-worth of telecommunications equipment to the UK to create a mobile network in London's Tube underground rail network.
According to the Sunday Times the network is likely to be installed in time to the Olympics, which will be held in London next year. Vodafone and O2 are expected to foot the bill for installation of the network, while Huawei, which plans to give the equipment to the UK free of charge as a gift from one Olympic nation to another, expects to earn income from maintenance fees.
Huawei was unable to comment on the project but confirmed it was part of the bidding process. "The UK is an important market for Huawei," the company told the Financial Times.
"Transport for London (TfL) and the Mayor of London are currently in discussion with mobile phone operators and other suppliers about the potential provision of mobile phone services on the deep Tube network," said a TfL spokesman.
"Given the financial pressures on TfL's budgets, any solution would need to be funded through mobile operators with no cost to fare or taxpayers. Discussions are ongoing."
The network would ensure Londoners can make calls and access the web from their smartphone handsets while travelling on the underground. Offering a mobile network has been something that's been discussed for some time. However, the cost of installing the necessary equipment has long been seen as a barrier.
Last year, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, revealed he wants mobile signals extended to the London's underground network in time for the Olympics in 2012. Hitting this target may prove difficult, as no trials of the service have even taken place yet. In 2009, TfL scrapped a six-month trial that would have seen mobile signals available on the Waterloo & City line due to high costs.
However, commuters at Charing Cross have been given a trial Wi-Fi connection in the ticket hall and platforms at the underground station in a six-month scheme, which is taking place in conjunction with BT. Huawei's equipment is already being used in this trial.
Richard Thurston, an analyst with Ovum, welcomed the news.
"Finally there is progress on these much-delayed plans to mobile-enable the London Underground. The project has been delayed for years because of revenue sharing, infrastructure sharing and installation challenges. Most of those challenges remain, and we expect this project will continue to prove troublesome. It is unlikely that the underground portions of the mobile network will all be fully operational by 2012," he said.
However, Thurston said the contract "is certainly no gift from China".
"It gives Huawei yet another commercial foot in the door in Western markets from which it should be able to build to secure further contracts. Huawei is already succeeding at overcoming the cultural issues faced by its transition from a Chinese to a global company and it has already won widespread deals with mobile network operators."
Thuston added that the suspicion that Huawei’s award of large UK contracts masks a security threat is overstated.
"While the threat of cybersecurity is usually underestimated, it would be extremely difficult for a cybersecurity attack to be launched using just one vendor’s equipment. Instead, successful cybersecurity attacks require a co-ordinated multi-faceted assault on UK critical national infrastructure."
See also: O2 mobile phones to work on underground