Home Subway Cell Service Walder: Timeframe for cell service ‘simply unacceptable’

Walder: Timeframe for cell service ‘simply unacceptable’

by Benjamin Kabak

The MTA, long known for its tight control of its transit data, hosted last night its first developers conference. The agency partnered with Google to discuss with local software developers how it can better create an environment of open information so that entrepreneurs and engineers can produce applications that will help riders with their commutes.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the conference due to my law school finals schedule, but I was able to watch some of it online. One the more intriguing announcements came from MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder when he previewed an app contest the authority will host this fall. With new volumes of open data available to the public, the MTA is going to award prizes for the top three applications in three categories: Best Customer-Friendly Application, Best Visualization of MTA data and Best Mash-Up of MTA and Third-Party Data. The possibilities are endless, and smart phone-equipped riders will be the ones who benefit.

Yet, despite this attention to mobile application development, the MTA is still lacking underground cell service and a plan for implementation. Walder addressed that topic tonight during the Q-and-A session, and Allen Stern of CenterNetworks.com caught the clip on video. Walder spoke about his annoyance with the state of cell service underground and how he is “frustrated with pages upon pages of why it’s not going to happen this decade.”

Currently, he explained, the MTA has issued an RFP for wireless service on commuter rail lines and has signed a deal to equip Grand Central with wireless, but their plans for Transit remain in limbo. “We have a contractual arrangement to be able to get cell service into the subway as well and I hope that we’ll have that in the not too different future as well,” he said. “I think the timeframes we have established for this are simply unacceptable. I don’t believe we can explain to people why it will take until 2019 or something of that nature to be able to get cell service into the subways. And so we’re working on a range of different ways to be able to do it. But it does turn out to be one of the more problematic and vexing issues we’re facing.”

Walder has a reason to be annoyed. The MTA has been talking about underground cell service since 2005 and signed a deal (with a company many believed to be less than reliable) in September 2007. When the promises of a pilot six months after that failed to materialize, I figured the efforts to bring wireless underground were all but dead. It isn’t surprising to hear a decade-long timeline from Walder.

Underground cell service is a tricky thing though. As Stern wrote, “I can’t say I am a huge fan of cell phone service underground. It’s bad enough having to listen to music I am not interested in as if I was at a concert, now we will be subject to 200 phone calls as well.” One of my Twitter followers echoed those sentiments: “Personally I enjoy the one hour of my day that isn’t interrupted by phones, texts and emails.”

But it goes well beyond idle chit-chat and personal conversations. Having a wireless-equipped subway system will allow for greater productivity. It will accomodate those who need to work and those who can’t afford to spend 40 minutes a ride without cell service the opportunity to be plugged in. It will allow New York to better take advantage of its position in a global economy. With the good will, obviously, come the bad of conversations that are too loud or too inappropriate, but that’s the price we pay today. The subways shouldn’t be island away from the technologies of the 21st Century.

It is, then, somewhat ironic for the MTA to be so invested in open data when the phones that run these promised applications don’t work underground. Hopefully, the authority can show a commitment to this aspect of the technology as well.

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JPN May 6, 2010 - 3:32 am

As a 2004 college graduate with a BS in computer science and after years of career indecision, I think this may just be my path to get back in the game. And as I am very familiar with NYC’s public transportation system as a whole, I may potentially have some cool ideas. I hope the incentives for the top awards are worth it.

Scott E May 6, 2010 - 8:07 am

JPN – If you’re looking at this as a career move, the incentive will be just a token of recognition. Getting your name at the top of the Android Marketplace or iPhone apps rankings will get you the name recognition you need to vault yourself into selling paid apps. If you’re as enthusiastic about programming as I was (in my younger days), go for it. Don’t let the incentive be your motivation. You don’t need the MTA’s endorsement to provide this data anymore.

Look at Kickmap. The developer can probably get any job in transit cartography that he wants (except one with the MTA) because of the convenient and colorful subway routing diagrams he put together. Everybody (except the MTA) recognizes his skills and creativity.

JPN May 6, 2010 - 11:46 am

Ok, it probably is wrong to develop just for the awards. Even if no money was involved from the MTA, I would be happy to compete. My problem now is I have basically no experience in mobile computing at this point, so I have to make my moves and investments carefully. I am looking for the right projects and motivation so I can build a resume and enter the job market with accomplishments that count for me. Mobile computing was not at the top of my list and I would rather have higher education (Something I discovered about myself, I love to learn, but you can’t earn money from just learning), but I gotta do something before I get too old. The other possible route is Web applications, but they’re not as hot or sexy as mobile as I see it now.

As a side note, I’m quite proficient in Wikipedia editing, something I have been shy to admit until now. (Ben, you didn’t reply to my e-mail a few weeks ago!) But I don’t think I can put that on my resume.

Re the Kickmap, I’m not surprised the MTA has its reasons. But isn’t one of them due to the backlash over Massimo Vignelli’s map? That’s a valid disincentive there, but one which should fade over time. I’d think the Kickmap needs to be sufficiently popular/criticized before the MTA considers it. I don’t know if that’s something to be blamed on the MTA.

JPN May 6, 2010 - 3:55 am

I can’t wait to see the conference archive. As for programming, to program apps for the iPhone or iPod touch, you essentially need a Mac computer, so that’s out of the question for me. Android is apparently influenced by Java, so I’ll probably program for Android or the Web.

As for underground cell service, I think people will say that’s a low priority compared to, say, signal upgrades for faster train service. I’m happy with my MP3 player or a book.

AK May 6, 2010 - 8:47 am

Ben, I know that the NYPD is not particularly keen on cell phone service in the subway system for security reasons. I would suspect that the opposition of that politically powerful group has something to do with the delays (and possible elimination) of cell access plans.

Benjamin Kabak May 6, 2010 - 9:33 am

The security argument runs both ways though, right? How can the city/MTA communicate in case of an underground emergency if the system isn’t equipped for it?

AK May 6, 2010 - 10:18 am

Well, the cops insist that their communications network (standard transponders) can operate within the system. I am not an expert on the technology, nor do I have any sense of the NYPD’s internal thought process on the issue, other than that they are afraid of cell-triggered explosives.

Robert May 6, 2010 - 9:37 am

While the Mayor spends money on the 7 subway to nowhere, things like this fall off the map. Congrats NY’ers for electing more corrupt politicos!

Scott E May 6, 2010 - 9:49 am

I would think the obstacles to putting cell-phone service underground is not unlike the ones Lockheed Martin encountered putting in their security system: facilities, train service, and inter-agency coordination.

The wireless providers need dry, accessible locations to house their equipment. They also need to run cabling through all of the tunnels (unless they are just covering stations, which many regard as a waste). Running cable through tunnels requires service disruptions. Also, there needs to be coordination with the police so that their existing underground radio system doesn’t suffer interference from a cellular system; and I think the NYPD has higher priorities than cooperating with a for-profit venture that could potentially harm their service over over 656 track-miles.

Al D May 6, 2010 - 9:54 am

I prefer to see stations covered only, if there were to be any coverage at all. I couldn’t bear to hear about that no good, lying, cheating husband on a train delayed Lex all the way from Brooklyn Brdige to Grand Central!

I don’t fully agree with the productivity comment. Most work devices are Blackberry’s, and they can send and receive emails just the same. Perhaps you don’t receive emails imemdiately, but you can spend the 40 minutes writing them, or working on a laptop (how inconvenient anyway is a SRO car.)

I think cell service underground adds a 21st century frustration to a system that already has enough 20th century frustrations.

E. Aron May 6, 2010 - 10:28 am

I agree – if the MTA is spending any money on this development, perhaps they should consider cleaning the stations in which tech-savvy passengers would be using these devices. There’s just something fundamentally ironic about pulling out a shiny laptop or iPad or whatever other device and having black gook spill from the ceiling onto the expensive toy (this actually happened to me, but on my shirt, not a fancy gizmo). If the MTA can provide clean stations and get this done at the same time, more power to them. I just think there are more pressing concerns. Who’s writing e-mails while standing in a jam packed train at rush hour anyway?

Kai B May 6, 2010 - 5:44 pm

The MTA certainly shouldn’t pay for it. I just read an article about Munich, which, like New York City, is one of the hold outs in underground cell service. However, this is because they ban cell phone usage aboard any of their vehicles (including surface-level ones).

According to that article (it’s in German, otherwise I’d like it) – cell phone providers are dying to “cable up” the tunnels and the ban is all that’s keeping that from happening.

Kai B May 6, 2010 - 5:45 pm

*otherwise I’d link it

Aaron May 6, 2010 - 8:49 pm

Link anyhow? ich spreche etwas deutsch ;p.

Think twice May 6, 2010 - 11:13 am

Underground texting, talking, Wifi…they should all come with fees. (Perhaps even above-ground inside train cars if the technology exists.) The MTA would probably make a killing off of our society’s addiction to electronic connectivity. Emergency calls, service alerts, et al should be free.

Alon Levy May 6, 2010 - 2:10 pm

Talking for a fee is as good as no talking. There’s no upside to the MTA there.

Unsurprisingly, the profit-motivated subways of the world build infrastructure for free cell service on board. So do the railroads and bus systems. It’s just the airlines that have the privilege of stiffing business travelers on wi-fi fees.

Think twice May 6, 2010 - 4:13 pm

Talking for a fee is as good as no talking.


Daniel Howard May 6, 2010 - 11:45 am

“MTA is still lacking underground cell service and a plan for implementation.”

Glad to see MTA is doing something well. Riding the subway offers enough distractions without adding loud telephone conversations to every ride. And yes, since the train itself is noisy, people WILL TALK OVER the ambient noise, and instead of enjoying my reading material, I will start to stab people.

Alon Levy May 6, 2010 - 2:11 pm

The continuously-operating cell service in Shanghai did not lead to massive talking on board.

J B May 7, 2010 - 1:56 am

I’d be impressed if anyone was able to talk over the screeching and rumbling for more than 10 seconds. People talk on the subways all the time (when it’s not too loud anyway), I think a few more talking on cellphones won’t make a huge difference. I don’t think this doomsday scenario of dozens of screaming cellphone users per car is as certain as people suggest.
Given how Luddite New Yorkers are it’s a wonder we buy electronics at all.

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Kai B May 6, 2010 - 4:23 pm

Man, when I was living in Vienna in the late 90s, the subway there got underground cell service. And most of the underground portions there were built with a TBM and far below street level.


Scott E May 7, 2010 - 8:05 am

If it was built in the 90s, I would venture to guess that (1) its “newness” leads to the trains being quieter, (2) the infrastructure (equipment rooms, cabling) was all laid out before the first passenger trains came rumbling through. Its depth also helps avoid the problem of interference between underground and above-ground signals. I might even go so far as to say it doesn’t leak!

New York has to deal with all of these complexities, plus labor and political pressure which may or may not exist in Vienna, making it much more complicated.

Alon Levy May 7, 2010 - 2:32 pm

The Vienna U-Bahn was opened in 1976, before cellphones existed.

JPN May 12, 2010 - 12:00 am

The video of the unconference has been posted on YouTube by OpenPlans. I suppose the MTA has its own version, but I have not seen that posted yet.

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