London Underground’s contract with Virgin Media – questions and answers (UPDATED)

The WiFi will only be available on platforms

Earlier this week City Hall announced London Underground and Boris have agreed to let Virgin Media sell their WiFi broadband in return for providing a travel information portal for passengers.

Except that’s not quite the way they put it, opting instead to make this sound more like a public service than a chance to pay yet another company for internet connectivity while waiting for your delayed Tube.

Unlike my still unanswered questions about the cycle hire scheme, Transport for London have been quick to confirm details of the Virgin Media contract they omitted from the original press release.

I’ve copied the questions and answers below along with a couple of follow-up questions the answers prompted and which I asked this afternoon. I’ll update this post once I have the answers next week.

Perhaps as part of the reforms to sponsorship deals the London Assembly recently called for, TfL might consider publishing FAQs such as the one below on their website?

Can you confirm that no money is being paid to Virgin by the GLA under this contract?
No money is being paid to Virgin by GLA/TfL under this contract.

How much Virgin are paying for what seems to be the right to become the monopoly WiFi provider on the tube?
The amount Virgin is paying is commercially confidential

How long does the contract run for?
The contract runs for five years.

Does this contract include any naming or branding rights?
The contract does not include any naming or branding rights, but obviously when customers access wi-fi the text/images they receive on-screen on their devices will indicate it is Virgin Media providing it.

What is the cost to TfL/GLA for any station works carried out to facilitate the wifi deployment? 
There is no additional costs to TfL for works to facilitate Virgin’s public wi-fi deployment. We had an objective to install Wi-Fi services for operational purposes. The deal with Virgin Media allows us to offset the costs of improved customer service from the value of the concession. It also enables us to provide a valuable service to customers (data services on the Tube), which they have been asking for.
 
What signage will be in place advertising the service?
LU will work with Virgin Media to promote the service on stations as it is activated around the network. We are currently working with Virgin to determine the nature of the promotions.
 
Who is covering the cost of this?
Virgin will cover the cost, although LU will support Virgin by allowing access to the same public information channels used for other service improvements. LU always wants to offer the best possible service to its customers and believes Wi-Fi can improve customer journeys. It will enable customers to obtain real-time travel information, plan their journeys and find relevant information from a free portal provided by the concessionaire.

(I’ve asked TfL to confirm if this means TfL resources, emails, newsletters, posters and the public address system will be used to promote a commercial service.)
 
Will the information screens carry Virgin branding?
The Portal or ‘landing page’ that customers will see when accessing the Wi-fi service will be branded Virgin.

(I’ve asked to clarify if they mean the public information screens will carry Virgin Media branding.)
 
Will other companies will able to offer competing services, if not what advice has TfL had re state aid for a commercial entity?
Virgin has exclusive rights to provide public wi-fi access for a period of five years agreed through a competitive tender process, after which the contract will be re-tendered, in line with our standard procedures.
 
What guidance has TfL sought on creating a monopoly provider?
The contract with Virgin Media was awarded following an open competitive tender process, and adheres to all relevant laws governing such arrangements.

(As the deal appears to offer free WiFi to existing VM customers but which requires customer of other networks to pay or change provider, I’ve followed this up with a request of what monitoring will be in place to ensure any LU/TfL supported material does not stray into a commercial message encouraging users to switch providers.)

UPDATE: TfL have now provided answers to my follow-up questions, including confirming that the information portals WILL carry Virgin media branding.

Will the information portals carry VM branding?
The portal is being provided by VM alongside the public access Wi-Fi service. It will therefore be branded by VM as part of the concession for which they are paying.

When you say “LU will support Virgin by allowing access to the same public information channels used for other service improvements” do you mean TfL resources, emails, newsletters, posters and the public address system will be used to promote a commercial service?
VM will be solely responsible for promoting the service through commercial deals with LU’s existing advertising concessionaire, and outside of LU. LU may, at its discretion, provide space for advertising the availability of the Wi-Fi service within its own poster frames, subject to VM paying for such poster sites. VM will be using TfL’s data to provide travel information services in the same way as thousands of other developers use the same data to provide similar services currently. This will be under licence.

The deal appears to offer free WiFi to existing VM customers but which requires customer of other networks to pay or change provider – what monitoring will be in place to ensure any LU/TfL supported material does not stray into a commercial message encouraging users to switch mobile providers?
The Portal provided by VM will be available to all customers with Wi-Fi enabled devices. This is enshrined within the contract with VM. The travel and service information provided by VM within the contract is on the Portal, so it will be free for all to use.

Customers will have the choice of whether or not to use wider internet-based services. There are various options available for such customers – they can be existing VM customers, they can be a customer of a service provider that has a wholesale agreement with VM or they can subscribe to the service directly with VM. This is the usual model adopted for Wi-Fi services.

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