It is a day of reckoning for New Yorkers who have long enjoyed the quietude, peacefulness and tranquility of the New York City Subway system for today is the day that the dreaded cell service reaches underground. Panic in the subways! Rude conversations! Cell rage! Cats and dogs living together! It’s the end of the world as we know it!
Okay, okay, okay. It’s not going to be that bad, but after reading news coverage of this event, you may be forgiven for thinking so. Everyone from CBS to The Wall Street Journal to The Times is reporting this story as though 200 stations and hundreds of miles of subway tracks aren’t aboveground with cell service. Clyde Haberman, tongue firmly in cheek, even called it the dying gasp of civilization. That honor, I believe, belongs to people who don’t know how to use the volume controls on their iPods, but I digress.
The news is, well, not new. Since 2007, the MTA and Transit Wireless has tried to equip six stations in Chelsea and along 14th Street with cell service, and after stops and starts, the pilot officially went live today at the following stations:
- A, C, E station at Eighth Avenue and West 14th Street;
- L station at Eighth Avenue and West 14th Street;
- C, E station at Eighth Avenue and West 23rd Street;
- 1, 2, 3 station at Seventh Avenue and West 14th Street;
- F, M station at Sixth Avenue and West 14th Street;
- L station at Sixth Avenue and West 14th Street.
The signal, while not strong in the tunnel, reportedly can span stations. Jamie Shupak from NY1 said she had full bars to 34th Street during her ride today.
Transit Wireless had originally said that the pilot would go live in mid-2012, and the MTA praised the company for exceeding expectations. “Bringing wireless service into our subway system is the latest milestone in the MTA’s effort to use technology to improve the service we provide for our customers,” \MTA Chairman and CEO Jay H. Walder said. “Whether you’re checking your email, calling your kids or looking for emergency assistance, wireless service will bring the conveniences we’re used to throughout our lives into the subway system.”
Moving forward, Transit Wireless is aiming to provide service in the remaining 271 underground stations before 2015 is out. The next 30 stations — including Times Square Herald Square and Columbus Circle — will be along the west side of Manhattan, mostly in Midtown, and they should be cell-ready within the next 12 months.
Using fiber nodes and a signal delivery system, Transit Wireless is now providing AT&T and T-Mobile service underground. It is a neutral host, though, and hopes to sign up the remaining wireless carriers soon. Currently, the company and carriers are paying 100 percent of the costs of the project, and that total covers the Transit forces that provide flagging, protection and support services. The MTA will split occupancy fee revenues and sub-licenses. “Transit Wireless has created a win-win-win scenario in the New York City subway system,” Transit Wireless CEO William A. Bayne Jr. said. “Commuters have improved access to communication; the MTA realizes additional revenue and the wireless carriers can provide added value to their customers.”
From a ridership perspective, that’s all good news. The MTA makes money while straphangers now have access to data services and cell capabilities underground. That commute won’t be dead time that may hinder productivity. The news media though has tried to turn this into some apocalypse of rudeness. “I’m planning to be more annoyed on the subway,” Chris Wancura said to The Journal.
Others echoed that complaint. “There was always something about transportation – planes, trains, subways – that no one could get in touch with you. And that was a relief,” Abby Stokes bemoaned. “Now they can.”
From quotes to headlines that suggested cell service is only now arriving in the subway, the coverage looked very Manhattan-centric this week. As a native of the island who now lives in Brooklyn, I’ve seen this battle between the so-called City and so-called Outer Boroughs unfold frequently and from both sides. With transportation policy and improvement stories, though, it creates a problematic dichotomy.
In parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island, cell service has long been a part of the commute. Take the 7 to Flushing and folks are on the phones the entire way. Journey to Coney Island, and cell phone patter is just another sound. Some people hate it; some people tune it out. By and large though, most talkers are polite enough to hold conversations at a respectable volume. The world has not ended as cell phones have invaded.
But now it’s come to Manhattan, the purview of newspapers and journalists who don’t need to cross a river. This type of coverage creates a very us-versus-them atmosphere. It’s why newspapers give only perfunctory coverage of poor intra-borough, non-Manhattan transits options. It’s why people scoff at the pipe dream of a TriboroRX line and why the G train is looked down upon by those who do not ride it very frequently. No one is championing these causes in the pages of the paper that matter because for these papers, it’s about Manhattan first and everything else second. The cohesion of a transit network that spans five boroughs is often missing from that news coverage.
Perhaps I’m being too sensitive. Perhaps reporters are just writing what their readers want to hear. Perhaps cell coverage underground — something that seemed technologically impossible for years — is just that much of a novelty. But now that people on the other end of the phone from those in the subway in Manhattan can hear them now, how about the rest of us?