In September 2007, the MTA chose a little-known company named Transit Wireless to receive a $200 million contract that would allow it to equip all underground subway stations with wireless capabilities. It seemed almost too good to be true, and we quickly learned that, in fact, it was. Just one month later, the agency revealed that Transit Wireless had no financial backing, and as of June 2009, the company was still insolvent.
Yesterday, though, a light — or is that a bar of cell service? — appeared on the horizon as the MTA announced that the deal with Transit Wireless is back on track. Pete Donohue had more in the Daily News:
Transit Wireless will soon start work on wiring stations so riders can make calls and send texts during everyday travels – and during emergencies. Under the original agreement, Transit Wireless was to rig the first batch of Manhattan stations within two years of getting the construction go-ahead. The company would then have four years to wire all other stations.
The MTA board approved the project in September 2007. It didn’t give the “notice to proceed” until last week because the MTA doubted Transit Wireless had solid financing, sources said. MTA brass finally gave the outfit an ultimatum to lock in funding or lose the contract, one source said. Transit Wireless has since brought another company on board, Broadcast Australia, the source said.
Once complete, riders will have cell-phone service on platforms, mezzanines and other parts of stations. For the most part, there won’t be onboard service between station stops. Under the deal, cell-phone companies would pay Transit Wireless to carry their signals, and the MTA would get half the revenue, sources said. Transit Wireless is expected to cover all construction costs.
As Donohue’s sources note, this push to deliver on a three-year-old contract appears to be coming from Jay Walder himself. The MTA CEO and Chairman has made realizing technological innovation at the MTA a priority during his first year at the helm, and although he mentioned that wireless signals underground would not take precedence over projects easier to implement, if the MTA can exploit an outstanding contract that requires another company to pay for the work, they should do so.
On the other hand, I’m not going to count these wifi chickens before they hatch. Transit Wireless’ website is still stuck in late 2007, and the company originally claimed it would pay out a minimum of $46.8 million to New York City Transit over ten years while footing the cost for building a wireless network underground. The price tag on that was pegged at $150 to $200 million three years ago.
Meanwhile, in a person-on-the-street piece, NBC New York’s Jillian Scharr found that reaction among straphangers was mixed. Some look forward to cell — and more importantly, data — service underground while others view it as loud conversations that should remain private invading the public sphere. At least the tunnels won’t be wired so the conversations will stop when the trains arrive. That is, if this plan comes to fruition in the first place.