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Chunnel mobile available – but only while heading towards UK

Blighty misses the Olympic boat

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Channel Tunnel passengers heading to the UK will get mobile coverage, but those heading abroad will remain incommunicado until the British operators get their act together.

French operators Bouygues Telecom and Orange SFR have agreed a deal with Eurotunnel to extend both networks into the northbound track, but despite starting negotiations at the same time, the intransigent British networks haven't cut a deal to provide coverage in the other direction, so anyone going south (to France) won't be able to get any signal at all which is a shame considering some of them spent eight hours over the journey yesterday.

Yesterday's downed power line in France caused delays all day as trains were switched to low-speed operations, but passengers who complained about the lack of announcements and spending hours stationary in a tunnel would probably have been very grateful for some mobile connectivity.

Which they will soon have, when travelling to the UK at least. The two directions run down separate tunnels, 30 metres apart and necessitating separate networks, so the decision was made to give one direction to operators in each country with the intention of getting the service operational by the Olympics.

On the French side that went fine, what with a French company (Alacatel-Lucent) providing the kit, and the fact that it is an election year in France – the latter explaining why both parties traipsed to French Ministry of Economy, Finance and Industry to sign the contract. But UK operators didn't manage to get an agreement in time, so Eurotunnel is hoping to put something in place after the games.

Eurotunnel is keen as it wants help paying the €14m it has cost to put GSM-R (and GSM) into the railway network. GSM-R is a tweaked version of the GSM standard designed for railways which copes better with radios moving at high speed. GSM-R has been adopted, and deployed, across Europe, but it's also close enough to standard GSM for Alacatel-Lucent to be able to fill the tunnel with one infrastructure carrying both networks.

That infrastructure comprises base stations every 750 metres, linked by a leaky cable, and carries both GSM and 3G connections which will be local to the French but roaming for the British. Customers of the French network Free will also have to roam for a while – until 2017 when Free will also get onto the undersea network.

Anyone wanting to natter on while travelling to the continent will have to wait for the UK operators to sign up, and may be waiting a long time. Eurotunnel is deploying all the infrastructure, so it's just a matter of plugging it in and signing a commercial agreement, but that commercial agreement remains something of a sticking point and none of the operators The Register has spoken to are expecting anything to happen soon. ®

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