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Virgin Media snags London Underground Wi-Fi monopoly

Free in tube stations - but only for the summer

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Virgin Media will be fitting 120 London tube stations with Wi-Fi, but once the Olympic summer is over the service will no longer be free and the firm will begin charging by the minute.

Around 80 stations will initially be kitted out with wireless access in time for the Olympics, while the remaining 40 or so earmarked by Transport for London (TfL) won't get a Wi-Fi network until the end of 2012.

TfL serves 270 stations across its tube network in the capital.

The Wi-Fi network will only extend to stations, not into trains or tunnels, but it will be free, for the summer at least. Virgin Media customers will get free access to the underground Wi-Fi network indefinitely, but everyone else will have to sign up to pay for the minutes they want to use, unless they're only interested in travel information which will continue to be free.

The deal was announced by Boris Johnson, who has been determined to get some sort of connectivity underground before the Olympics. Virgin Media reckons it will have 80 stations wired up for wireless by then, with another 40 to follow by the end of 2012, by which time most of us will have to pay to use them.

The fibre-optic cable slinger won't say how long it is going to offer free access to the network, only that it starts in July and will last for "the summer", but it's safe to assume it won't kick in the billing system until the last Olympic visitor is safely out of the city.

Here's a canned statement from Virgin Media boss Neil Berkett:

With the eyes of the world on London this summer, we’ll be showing off our capital as a leading connected city on the global stage. We’re putting the power of Virgin Media’s fibre optic network in the hands of millions of Londoners, commuters and visitors and are delighted to be launching Wi-Fi for free throughout summer 2012 and beyond.

Neither the government nor the operator is talking money, only telling us that the cost of deployment "is covered by the commercial contract that has been awarded to Virgin Media". It's unlikely the firm will make much money selling pre-paid access, but the advertising value shouldn't be underestimated – one can imagine the peer pressure from a group of mates when only one isn't staying connected.

Not that the peer pressure will last for long, London's underground network is pretty efficient (at least in the centre) and there won't be much time for surfing before a train comes along to whisk one into a tunnel and away from Virgin Media's Wi-Fi network. ®

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