📱 Tech

Why London’s half-arsed tube WiFi is the worst of all possible worlds

Written almost entirely on tube trains

By Holly Brockwell July 20, 2015

We’ve had WiFi on the tube in London for three years now, gradually rolling out to more stations, but pointedly avoiding the tunnels that join them up. This means you only get signal while you’re in a station, and that limitation – in tandem with internet-addicted human nature – leads to a result that’s worse than no WiFi at all.

Why? Because now, instead of reading our books and listening to our podcasts and thinking, or just messing about on the internet, our commutes are a disjointed series of tiny fixes of signal, and nothing intensifies an addiction like not enough of what you’re craving. Give me WiFi or no WiFi, but not this. This is torture.

The shonky structure of London’s tube WiFi is actually a perfect mirror for a famous Psychology experiment: the Skinner Box (or Operant Conditioning Chamber if you’re feeling fancy). The experiment involved putting a rat in a box with a lever. If the lever dispensed a food pellet every time it was pressed, the rats would press it often… obviously. If it stopped dispensing food, they’d stop pressing it pretty quickly (rats are clever).

Image: © iStockphoto/lculig

BUT, if the lever only dispensed food sometimes, and in a completely random pattern, the rats would basically go on pressing it forever, even when it had stopped giving out treats. They’d wear their paws down to nubbins pressing that hopeless, disconnected lever because the next press could be the lucky one, right guys? Right?!

Tube WiFi is exactly like this. Sometimes you can get connected as soon as you pull into the station, see something good on Twitter, click through, it loads and you get to read it. And sometimes you’re still trying to get a connection as the train sails back into the darkness, Twitter stubbornly refusing to update, and your phone tantalisingly telling you there are ‘open networks available.’ Hrngh. It’s an internet Skinner Box, and I can’t stop pressing the lever.

It’s got to the point where I actively sit in the last carriage of the train so I get maximum connectivity time before I’m back in the disconnected wilderness of the tunnel. The second I can feel the train slowing down to pull into the next station, I’m on my WiFi panel, searching for networks so I can connect as soon as possible. Yes, this is madness on my part, but madness that’s encouraged and nurtured by the structure of tube WiFi. Because as we all know, when Facebook or Twitter throws up something you want to read, you’re going to get one, two or even three Virgin Media splash screens before you get to see it, and sometimes that eats all of your connectivity time before you’re back in the tunnel, article pitifully half-loaded. Of course Virgin couldn’t include a ‘proceed to article’ button, because that’s just too much work for people who think splash screens are still a thing.

If the WiFi worked all the way through your journey, it would just be an option. You could choose to read your book, or choose to use the internet, or do a bit of both. If it didn’t work at all, you could read or listen to music or think. But the problem is, it’s intermittent. So I’ll start reading my book, then realise we’re in a station, and suddenly feel the slight panic that I’ve only got 10 seconds or so to refresh Twitter or reply to my WhatsApp messages before I’m locked out again. So I come out of my Kindle app and grab my quick breather of internet time, type a response to one of my messages, then actually sit looking at my phone waiting ’til I can connect again rather than doing something more useful. I don’t think, I don’t read, I just stare.

For the record, Virgin Media’s official reason for not extending WiFi into the tunnels is that “they’re concentrating on stations first.” The real reason is more likely the cost, and the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of space inside the tunnels for repeater units. Chinese firm Huawei offered to put £50m towards the cost of tunnel WiFi, but were rejected in 2012, allegedly because of terrorism concerns.

Sometimes we don’t know what’s good for us

My 40 minute-ish commute to work used to be a time for coming up with ideas for the day, or making decent progress on the book I was reading. It was one of the few internet-free zones left in my life – the others being flights and train journeys, and even some of those have WiFi now. As a self-confessed Twitter addict, I was fully in favour of WiFi on the tube, but sometimes humans don’t know what’s good for us. It’s actually a positive thing to have a few gaps from the always-on routines we’ve got ourselves into, a few legitimate excuses for not responding instantly to messages and pings and notifications.

There’s a reason people often come up with their best ideas in the shower (see Reddit’s Shower Thoughts page for proof). It’s because even if you want to, you can’t use your goddamn phone. You can use it on the loo, you can use it in meetings and you can use it when you’re pretending to listen to your mate pour her heart out – but you can’t use it in the shower. One day you’ll be able to, but you shouldn’t.

The internet is already a constant stream of tiny distractions, flashes of light that relentlessly interrupt thought paths and kill ideas before they’ve had time to coalesce. Yes, we can turn them off, but we don’t. We can’t. Because we’re addicted. And I’d rather see the lever taken away entirely than carry on living like a rat in a box.


Main image: © iStockphoto/LDProd