Home Subway Cell Service MTA vows to bring cell, wifi service underground, again

MTA vows to bring cell, wifi service underground, again

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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SEAN July 27, 2010 - 4:31 pm

Can you hear me now? Oh, that’s right no bars in underground places.


digamma July 27, 2010 - 4:36 pm

Transit lines with wireless service: more than half the subway system, most of Long Island Railroad, most of New Jersey Transit, most of Metro North, roughly half of PATH, all of Newark Light Rail, all of MTA bus, all of NJ Transit bus, all the private buses in Jersey, and Bee Line buses.

Transit lines without wireless service: less than half the subway system, and the very end of the commuter rail lines once they go into Manhattan.

People who make apocalyptic arguments about what will happen if the latter group gets wireless service need to account for why it hasn’t happened to the former group.

rhywun July 28, 2010 - 1:53 am

It’s not “apocalyptic” when my train emerges from a tunnel – just annoying, yet at the same time somewhat amusing to someone like me who didn’t have this technology growing up. I’ll drop all objections–and never leave the headphones at home again–if they promise to spend not one taxpayer cent on it. That means no “public-private partnership” nonsense, no “privately funded” with tiny print at bottom explaining that the city will pick up the tab for extra infrastructure, and no “well, the company skipped out halfway through and left the city the tab of completing the job”.

Christopher July 27, 2010 - 4:53 pm

Let’s follow the Japanese example and not allow cellphone conversations on trains. I maybe Deaf and so in theory won’t be bothered either way, but people behave different when talking on their cellphones and would prefer it happened in far fewer places than it does. (Admittedly, NYers are pretty decent at respecting indoor/outdoor rules, at least compared to our American cities.)

John Paul N. July 27, 2010 - 6:19 pm

For whatever reason, the MTA likes to stick with subcontractors who can’t deliver on schedule. It’s one thing to place faith in someone whom you had an agreement with, but if you are a public agency, a little aggression could be expected.

@Christopher, I agree with you. Although I do believe more people will utilize the data aspect of cellphone signal service. I certainly would. Even more so with social media software. As I am writing this, I’m using a mobile phone. The mobile version is great, except I can’t reply directly to a comment.

Benjamin Kabak July 27, 2010 - 6:22 pm

The reason is a stupid one. The MTA must accept the lowest bid and not what they would consider to be the lowest reliable bid. Thus, if a poorly-capitalized company like Transit Wireless submits the lowest bid, it wins the project even if another company’s slightly higher bid would have meant an underground wireless network by now.

BrianW July 27, 2010 - 7:41 pm

Are you sure about that? I feel like they can choose the lowest bid that meets the stated qualifications. And those qualifications could weed out blatantly ridiculous bidders.

Alon Levy July 28, 2010 - 1:59 am

The qualifications only work that way in principle. In practice, there are always some idiots, mafiosi, and ordinary thieves who get in.

Al D July 28, 2010 - 9:13 am

If they procured this contract via RFP (Request for Proposals), then an evaluation committee recommends for award based on the best combination of price and technical ability. This should additionally include a vetting of a company’s financial capabilities. If a competitive bid was used, it is in fact the lowest price, but this method also requires a clear set of specifications which likely do not exist here. Most likely and because the All Agency Procurement Guidelines that govern procurement activity at MTA are weak and easily interpreted to the point of abuse, rules were bent, words were twisted to suit whomever’s need there, and this is the result.

bob July 29, 2010 - 10:25 am

Thank you Al for explaining the basics, although many won’t listen.

If you look at the staff summaries in the Committee Agenda books now published on the MTA website you’ll see that some bidders are disqualified on technical grounds. But others can put together something that looks good enough to pass…and the lack of details in many of the rushed designs means they bid low and then cash in on clarifications and Additional Work Orders. The really good big name companies that don’t do that don’t bother with government work unless business is really bad.

In this particular case the challenges are even greater. Look at the cell site on top of a building – it’s big boxes of electronic equipment. Where in many subway stations will this go? How do you exhaust all the heat these produce? (This is a huge issue for all the fancy electronics being installed in the subway.) How do you keep the steel dust out? – that will destroy the expensive electronics. This is going to be very expensive, and the MTA doesn’t want to pay a cent, the carriers won’t pay too much for less than half the subway system (stations only), so the companies that really know how to do this were not interested.

I predict if Walder really wants to make this happen he’s going to wind up spending MTA money on it, although he may hide it in another program or contract.

John Paul N. July 29, 2010 - 10:46 am

The really good big name companies that don’t do that don’t bother with government work unless business is really bad.

This is going to be very expensive, and the MTA doesn’t want to pay a cent, the carriers won’t pay too much for less than half the subway system (stations only), so the companies that really know how to do this were not interested.

That’s just great. There is nothing like being forced to reward the irresponsible, when all you can choose is irresponsible contractors or contractors who purposefully bid low with the intent of fleecing the MTA later. The MTA cannot win. Really, is there no way the MTA could have attracted the competent companies so those companies would have been chosen?

Scott E July 27, 2010 - 8:56 pm

The problem in this particular case is that the MTA was greedy, trying to turn a free (to the MTA) benefit to riders and emergency responders into a profitable venture. There is just no way that a company can afford to design, build, and operate the system, pay the MTA an average of over $4.6 million per year, and collect enough revenue from the service providers to afford to stay in business.

John Paul N. July 27, 2010 - 6:41 pm

@Ben: Yes that’s pretty stupid, codified into the mta’s bylaws somehow. Laypeople don’t realize how much the Mta is bound by law and that change is difficult to implement, for all the talk that reform can happen overnight.

The contract bids process should be one of the first thing to change, but it’s not going to because the city and state contacts operate similarly I bet. Case in point, the Aqueduct casino fiasco.

bob July 29, 2010 - 10:29 am

The MTA is a state agency so it’s procurements have to follow state law. Most things have to follow the federal law also since they involve federal money.

These requirements can make things more complex, but most of the requirements were put in place to prevent theft and corruption. Get rid of the requirements and corruption will get worse. Which do you prefer?

As a related piece of trivia – as a state agency the MTA doesn’t pay sales tax on anything it buys.

Alon Levy July 28, 2010 - 2:00 am

In Paris, the trains may not have air conditioning, but they have working cell phone service. People by and large do not talk loudly on the phone there.

Aaron July 28, 2010 - 3:38 am

FWIW, most of the Los Angeles lines run above ground, asides from the Wilshire/Hollywood subways (Metro Red and Metro Purple lines), and I don’t recall any problems. I sometimes made calls on emptier trains myself, as did other people, and I never really noticed a noise problem. I mean, someone, somewhere is going to be an obnoxious ass and talk at informercial volumes, but… I doubt it’ll be as bad as people fear. I’d trade that risk for the ability to call for elevator maintenance, police, etc. etc., not to mention data – sort through my e-mail while on the train, text back and forth – as it is, everyone busts out their phones while on the Manhattan bridge to try to eke out texts and calls, but it’s never really so loud as to offend.

Al D July 28, 2010 - 9:17 am

My only question, WHY?! Who cares. The only solace is the following (i) no between station service and (ii) it will take many years, as it already has, to implement this.

My only hope is that there will be Quiet Sections of the platform where people like me who use the subway as a respite in an otherwise busy day, can avoid the blatherers who will most certainly be talking non-sense. Just think about a crowded Union Sq platform on the 4 5 6 in the Summer. There is a train delay, it is Summer, the platform temperature is 110 F, wall to wall people, ALL making calls!!

R2 July 28, 2010 - 12:18 pm

Actually, with the curvature on that platform (and also at Grand Central) the squealing should be loud enough to make conversation difficult. Probably be just a bunch of folk texting or surfing instead.

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