Home Subway Cell Service Underground cell service and New York exceptionalism

Underground cell service and New York exceptionalism

by Benjamin Kabak

For years, we’ve heard about plans to bring cell service to the New York City subway system, and after false starts and empty promises, only recently has a rather slow expansion of service begun to creep throughout the underground stations. Still, the system is not without flaws as the supposedly free wifi often isn’t free, and the service works about as often as it doesn’t. That won’t stop the MTA from expanding it, but should we applaud the effort or sigh exasperatedly at it?

As Transit Wireless works to expand cell service to more underground stations in the coming months, the MTA has its sights set on something bigger. In yet another effort to attract Millennials — who already take the subway because they’re not buying cars — the agency has long-range plans to equip its subway tunnels with cellular service. It’s not clear when this will happen, how much it will cost or who will pay, but it’s on the radar. MTA CEO and Chair Tom Prendergast said as much at a Citizens Budget Commission breakfast yesterday, and Matt Flegenheimer of The Times was on hand for his comments:

At a forum on Tuesday, the authority’s chairman, Thomas F. Prendergast, said that transit officials hoped to add Wi-Fi and possibly cellphone reception aboard moving trains — in what appeared to be the first public acknowledgment that the authority’s ambitions for wireless service went beyond stations.

Mr. Prendergast said the push for expanded Wi-Fi and cellphone access was a reaction, in part, to the demands of the growing population of young riders. “It is one of the features that the X’ers and the Y’ers and the millennials consider an expectation or an entitlement, not a luxury,” Mr. Prendergast said at the gathering, which was hosted by the Citizens Budget Commission…

The authority is also seeking to install Wi-Fi on the Metro-North Railroad and the Long Island Rail Road, issuing a request for proposals for a firm to provide service both on trains and inside stations. A spokesman said the authority was currently negotiating with a potential vendor. Service aboard subway trains was a logical evolution, Mr. Prendergast suggested. “Every time you provide Wi-Fi to a greater degree, they want to go to the next level,” he said. “That would be the next frontier. Exactly when, can’t say.”

Matt’s article goes on to discuss the pluses and minuses of underground cell service. It’s a debate I’ve analyzed before and one that I think is overblown as it tends to forget that millions of riders on the elevated and at-grade sections of the subway deal with this reality on a daily basis. Most riders are respectful cell users, and loud, obnoxious conversations aren’t the norm even if they are the stereotype. But that’s neither here nor there.

Rather, let’s talk about this idea of New York exceptionalism. Should we applaud the MTA for admitting that they want to install some sort of connectivity in between stations? Or should we wonder what is taking so long? There are subway systems that have had this feature for over a decade, and cell service in that regard isn’t the only deficiency. Countdown clocks, contactless fare payment systems, affordable construction costs — they’re all part of the same idea. It didn’t happen first in New York, and so it must be impossible or exceedingly painful for it to happen in New York.

I know the excuses. The New York City subway system is too big; it operates all the time; it’s too old; it wasn’t built for these technologies. But they’re just excuses. At some point, we have to ask why these things take so long to arrive in New York. Is it because we’re still catching up on decades of neglect? Is it because it’s a fight to fund state-of-good-repair programs, let alone necessary capital enhancements? These aren’t easy questions to answer, but they are ones that should be asked. Subway cell service — and a contactless fare payment system — shouldn’t, in 2013, be some far-off promise.

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Stephen Smith September 18, 2013 - 12:34 am

Is it because we’re still catching up on decades of neglect?

We’re coming up on 20 years since David Gunn started cleaning the graffiti and made keeping the system in a state of repair a priority. Was there backsliding after he left?

Larry Littlefield September 18, 2013 - 9:02 am

No. The reality is that aside from buses and train cars, the catching up never occured. That is, there was never a pace of investment that exceeded that which would have been required to maintain a state of good repair if it existed in the first place.

So to make up for the gaps in investment in the period before unification, and in the 1970s, things were just left in a state of disrepair until the normal pace of reinvestment caught up. After 50 years or so. The effort started in the early 1980s, so we are about 2/3 the way through.

Except that disinvestment is about to start again, until all the debts and retroactive pension deals are paid for. And not just at the MTA.

AG September 18, 2013 - 5:47 pm

I can’t even believe that they are seriously considering retro-active pay. They have some nerve. It’s kind of like in Newark – they had a choice to freeze pay for police – or lay off officers. They chose to lay off officers. Crime reduction ceased. Talk about selfish… but yeah if the MTA does cave in to the union – there will be financial consequences.

Bolwerk September 19, 2013 - 12:29 am

That was pretty exaggerated. There was an immediate surge in murder at the beginning of the year, and then the rest of the year remained fairly consistent with the previous year, with much increase largely driven by property crimes.

In any case, the way NJ and NYS work right now is either the union agrees to a pay concession or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, the only remaining alternative is layoffs, which the overstaffed MTA and NYPD arguably could use.

John-2 September 18, 2013 - 1:08 am

I suppose on the station platforms that are just level underground, they can just paint little boxes on the platforms beneath where the street vent grates are and just stencil in “Cell Phone Service Available Here” — though it wouldn’t surprise me if most people already have figured that out if they’ve ever been near a vent on one of those platforms and their phone rings. Not exactly a long-term answer to the problem, but it’s why if the MTA is going to do it, they should focus on the express stops and the deep-tunnel stations first.

Todd September 18, 2013 - 2:44 am

Fund the decades of neglect related repairs first. I can wait to update Facebook until I’m above ground

AG September 18, 2013 - 5:49 pm

LOLOL – true true… most likely though the MTA won’t be paying for the Wifi in the tunnels. Transit Wireless paid (is paying) for it in the stations because of the rent they receive from the networks. I’m assuming the tunnels will work the same way.

Howard September 18, 2013 - 4:44 am

I think adding cellphone is just “too much” for everyone. If people need to talk to someone they should add payphones in the middle/leaning of/on the platform. This is to make sure that people don’t make an “abrupt” stop just to check our their phones.

Howard September 18, 2013 - 5:00 am

woops typos.

“Adding cellphone services is….”

Chris C September 18, 2013 - 7:52 am

People just stopped even before the advent of mobile phones !

Is the infrastructure for this paid for by the provider or the MTA? If the former then all well and good but if the latter then surely there are better things they could be spending money on.

Jeff September 18, 2013 - 8:46 am

The former. In fact the MTA gets money for this.

Kevin Walsh September 18, 2013 - 7:37 am

The subway has been a haven from the yammering hordes. Looks like those days are numbered.

JMB September 18, 2013 - 9:53 am

yammering hordes

I lol’d. Well done Mr. Walsh, couldn’t of said it better myself 🙂

VLM September 18, 2013 - 10:09 am


There’s already cell service throughout the subway system. Leave the tunnels now and then, and as Ben noted, you’ll see that it’s hardly a disaster. It’s also a productivity issue. Do you enjoy NYC’s spot as a preeminent global city?

Alon Levy September 18, 2013 - 9:27 pm

Come visit Boston sometime. There’s cell service there, and miraculously people don’t act like yammering hordes. It’s as if people are polite.

Ned September 18, 2013 - 8:08 am

Small point, but as to WiFi on Metro-North trains, Boston’s MBTA commuter rail has an excellent system already in place, with free access and a wireless router in each car. I understand that’s a much smaller system, but seriously, none of this is unheard-of elsewhere. The challenge in nyc, I guess, is always the implementation on a massive scale.

I still think countdown clocks on the B division would broadly improve quality of life for riders beyond any of these other technological improvements. Especially as it seems (to me) that there are more B-division lines sharing platforms that diverge sooner in and out of Manhattan (i.e. M/F, B/D, R,N (when fixed), C/E, etc; vs. the 2/3 and 4/5 which diverge well into the Bronx and Brooklyn) so hearing “a downtown local train is 20 stations away” every once in a while when you’re at W 4th Street isn’t nearly so helpful.

SEAN September 18, 2013 - 10:20 am

The next… Queensbound train… is now ariving… on the… express… track. Please stand back from the platform edge.

That’s whycell service is nessessary since you cant tell what train it is until it comes. LOL

Kevin Walsh September 18, 2013 - 11:48 am

Well, if they’d go back to colored bullets differentiating lines in the front of the train on the new cars, or even two color coded lamps on the front car, you could. 🙂

AG September 18, 2013 - 5:51 pm

I’m a big big fan of countdown clocks… it’s helped me make many a decision in my travels.

R2 September 18, 2013 - 10:30 am

I’m glad there’s talk of doing the tunnels. I rarely hear people yammering over the phone. Most folk are texting or using data anyway.

D in Bushwick September 18, 2013 - 11:43 am

So many stations throughout the city are filthy and many actually look like they’ve been abandoned.
Hundreds of subway stations used by more people in other parts of the world are always kept clean and in good repair.
Clean up the stations and keep them clean – that’s as basic as it gets.
Then we can talk about adding cell service.

Benjamin Kabak September 18, 2013 - 11:45 am

This is a total non sequitur. If someone else is paying for and carrying out the installation, who cares when it happens? We’ve gone over this before.

D. Graham September 18, 2013 - 12:37 pm

Now the only question that should be asked at this point is does this decrease or increase security in the subways from potential terror attacks. One of the key issues brought up some time after the London Underground attacks was the fact that their system was already hard wired for cell phone service. Mind you I can’t recall exactly but it is to my belief that those devices were detonated by cell phones. One of the key factors in security in our subways has been the fact that some of the juicy hard targets for terrorists have never been hard wired at the subway level.

Now mind you there are all sorts of ways for terrorists to detonate devices and these days they probably rather use the suicide method, but it’s just something to bring into the discussion that hasn’t been brought up in quite a long time.

Chris C September 18, 2013 - 3:00 pm

That is incorrect.

The London bombings were set off by their carriers i.e were suicide bombs and not in bags left on the trains / bus for later detonation via mobile phone.

There was no hard wiring for wi-fi or mobile coverage under ground at the time and even now wi-fi coverage is still very patchy and there is still no mobile coverage (other than any signal from above ground reaching stations)

Alon Levy September 18, 2013 - 9:31 pm

The London bombs were time bombs, triggered by cell phone alarm clocks.

When you think about it, there is zero advantage to being able to call remotely over just setting the bomb to explode at a specific time. Calling remotely lets you take into account what you see elsewhere, but not what you see on the train itself (i.e. how crowded it gets, or whether it’s in a spot with particularly bad ventilation). If you can see what the train’s condition is, it’s a suicide attack and you don’t need to trigger the bomb remotely in the first place.

Chris C September 19, 2013 - 8:39 am

They were NOT set off by clocks, mobile phones or any sort of remote device, motion sensor or trigger.

The bombers carried the bombs in rucksacks and set them off themselves.

All four of the bombers were killed by their own bombs and they were the first suicide bombers on UK soil.

Alon Levy September 19, 2013 - 9:01 am

At the press conference immediately following the bombing, the head of police specifically said that they were time bombs, as evidenced by the fact that the Underground explosions went off simultaneously. The suicide bombers used phone alarms as triggers.

Chris C September 19, 2013 - 9:59 am

Stop spouting nonsense!

Ever hear of people having watches and agreeing a time in advance to do something??

There is nothing in that wiki article that supports your assertion that phone alarms were used as triggers for setting the bombs off or that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police said they were time bombs.

The bombs were set of manually by the bombers. If using timers of some description had been the case why did the 4th bomb not detonate at 8.50 (wherever it was located) rather than been carried onto a bus and detonated an hour later??

Alon Levy September 20, 2013 - 10:39 pm

No, but the fact that in a television interview right after the bombing the Commissioner said that the simultaneous explosions suggested time bombs supports that assertion.

The bombings do not look like manual bombings, which would’ve been timed to hit passing trains on the subsurface lines.

Chris C September 21, 2013 - 8:46 am

Please, please stop commenting on things you know little about.

What was said during a fast moving situation often bears no relation to the final results of an investigation – just look at 9/11 for example where initial reports suggested the first crash was an accident and not not terrorism related.

The first thoughts of the Underground controllers were that the incidents were caused by power surges. Also initially it was thought and reported that 6 trains had been bombed and not 3. Both later proved wrong.

The investigation found no evidence that the bombs were set off my mobile phone.

Why would the bus bomber go and buy a 9v battery if not to set his bomb off? It was unlikely he was thinking ‘ohh must buy a battery for the smoke alarm at home’.

Why do you keep insisting on your assertion when a thorough police investigation, Parliamentary and Greater London Authority investigations and an Inquest do not support you?

AG September 21, 2013 - 1:54 pm

generally speaking – initial reports are usually quite wrong. even the navy yard shooting the other day was another prime example. initially there were only four dead… then there supposed to be a second shooter in military gear who got away… etc. etc.

Alon Levy September 22, 2013 - 4:13 am

You keep yelling at me that I’m wrong and asking me to provide evidence and yet you bring none.

Your move.

Tower18 September 18, 2013 - 1:53 pm

I appreciate cities that have cell service in the subways. Particularly in transfer stations where people often change trains and wait a good amount of time, like W 4th, Jay St, Columbus Circle, Times Square, Union Square, Queens Plaza, Roosevelt (less of an issue because there’s obviously service upstairs inside fare control), etc.

With the number of times I’ve waited 15+ minutes during rush hour at Jay St, it would definitely have been nice to have a data connection. Among other things, if there was a data connection AND/OR countdown clocks, I could see if there was a problem with the F that would make me want to get back on an A to catch a G, or to take the R, or just to wait.

Alon Levy September 18, 2013 - 9:41 pm

The fact that you’re waiting 15+ minutes at any time between 7 am and 11 pm speaks ill of the system regardless of cell service.

Tower18 September 19, 2013 - 4:00 pm

Also that. NY is embarrassing in this regard, particularly the B division. Even when things are working correctly, 10 minute headways midday? Come on.

Nathanael September 18, 2013 - 10:38 pm

“The New York City subway system is too big; it operates all the time; it’s too old; it wasn’t built for these technologies. But they’re just excuses.”

Same excuses used for not installing elevators when they completely rebuild stations from the ground up. It’s the same excuses for *everything* which is wrong with the system.


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