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London Mayor Boris grilled on Virgin's Underground penetration

Answered - who, what and for how long

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Virgin Media's London Underground wireless monopoly will last five years, but that's all right 'cos it didn't cost Transport for London a penny and other companies were allowed to bid.

Responding to questions from Mayorwatch, TfL explained that Virgin Media is paying to provide public Wi-Fi over infrastructure that was being fitted to the tube network anyway, and that Virgin will be allowed to make use of "public information channels" to publicise its service, but it won't get free advertising.

After a few months of free access (long enough to last the Olympics) the network will remain gratis for Virgin Media customers, but everyone else will have to pay. Virgin Media will maintain its monopoly at least until the contract comes up for renewal in 2017, but there won't be Virgin logos on the platforms beyond those within the usual poster sites.

Virgin Media will get some promotion of the service, as the London Underground will be "allowing access to the same public information channels used for other service improvement" but exactly what that means isn't clear.

No one will say how much Virgin Media is paying for all this, but it's not having to pay for the infrastructure (as it was going in for staff use anyway) so the money is for the monopoly, and the backhaul out of the Underground.

That monopoly shouldn't be underestimated, though in practical terms Wi-Fi on the platform might not be very useful (as the majority of time is spent on the train, particularly in the middle of London) but the bragging rights are considerable.

Virgin Media can't mention the Olympics, it isn't a sponsor so can't even refer to the fact that the free Wi-Fi will last until the end of the 2012 Games. It will be interesting to see how Virgin Media spins this to make its money, but even when it reaches the promised 120 stations it's not going to make a significant difference to most Londoners. ®

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