Archive for Subway Cell Service
In September of 2007, I wrote a short article about an impending plan to bring cell service underground. Since then, Transit Wireless, the MTA’s contractor chosen for the pilot program, failed to sign up carriers, appeared to be a bogus company, went belly-up for a few years and emerged in late 2010 with a mandate from Jay Walder along with cell carriers and a late 2011 launch date. That day may be drawing even nearer.
According to a brief report in amNew York, Transit Wireless’ subway cell service pilot will go live on Tuesday at various platforms downtown. The first stations to receive a cell signal will be along the 14th St. L train corridor as well as the A/C/E platform at 14th St. and 8th Ave., the 1/2/3 station at 14th St. and 7th Ave., the F/M stop at 14th St. and 6th Ave. and the local stop at 23rd St. and 8th Ave. Neither Transit Wireless nor the MTA have confirmed the Tuesday launch date, but they have not denied it either. Initially only T-Mobile and AT&T services will be available underground. If you’re a Verizon subscriber like me, you’re out of luck.
Transit Wireless believes it can outfit the rest of the MTA’s underground stations by 2016. The era of “can you hear me now?” and mindlessly inane cell conversations on subway platforms is drawing ever closer.
As the MTA gears up to bring Wi-Fi service to its commuter rail trains, The Post reports today that one train car is already equipped with service, but the MTA isn’t saying which one. Annie Karni says the MTA is a running a “covert, three-month pilot program” during which one car on the New Haven Line will enjoy Wi-Fi service. The car, she reports, has “an outside antenna that receives a cellular signal from AT&T. Inside the car, a router converts cell service to Wi-Fi.”
For its part, the MTA is holding back on revealing which car it is yet because the service is, in the words of an agency spokesperson, “not ready for prime time.” All New Haven Line riders should now furiously check their laptops and smart phones for an open wireless network while heading back home.
In other Wi-Fi news, The Post says the MTA is “currently reviewing three proposals to carry Wi-Fi throughout the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road systems and to provide 32-inch digital screens in cars for advertising and real-time updates about schedules and delays.” According to this report, installing these screens could cost up to $38,000 per car, a figure which seems absurdly high. I know retrofitting older rolling stock with new technology carries significant costs, but considering the price of a digital screen, that one seems excessive to me.
The MTA’s never-ending plans to bring wi-fi and cell phone service underground may soon be coming to a head. According to a PC Magazine report, the first stations to enjoy — or suffer through — cell signals may be outfitted before the year is out. Of course, international cities and even those a few hundred miles south will have long surpassed New York’s drive for not-so-cutting edge technology, but progress is progress nonetheless.
Sara Yin of the tech mag had a few scant details to report:
AT&T and T-Mobile customers will be the first to receive wireless Internet at select Manhattan subway stations as part of a pilot program launching late this year, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) said.
Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the MTA, said contractor Transit Wireless will launch a pilot program “in the backend of this year” providing wireless connectivity at the five subway stations along the 14th Street corridor. These include: 14th and Broadway, 14th and Sixth Avenue, 14th and Eighth Avenue, 14th and Third Avenue, and 14th and First Avenue.
“We’ll give them an additional four years after that to outfit the rest of the system, assuming all goes well with the pilot,” Ortiz added.
For those who have watched this story progress since late 2007, this his hardly breaking news. Those stations — actually six because PC Magazine omitted the 23rd St. stop — have long been on the initial list of those slated for the cell service pilot. What is promising however is the MTA’s insistence that Transit Wireless will have to “outfit the rest of the system” before 2015 is over. Part of me wants to say that I’ll believe it when I see it, but right now, the countdown clocks are more of a reality than I ever expected them to be.
As this project moves forward, the debate will of course center around personal space and overall quiet vs. the cacophony of cell conversations. In Brooklyn, a few stops from my local station, the B and Q trains head aboveground, and cell phones are the norm. Usually, the conversations are quiet and respectful, but as I learned two weeks ago while waiting at Queensboro Plaza, those around you can have obnoxiously loud conversations at an elevated subway stop. For millions of New Yorkers who never venture to the open-air areas of the system, cell service underground will be a new experience.
Of course, as New York lumbers forward with what will optimistically be an eight-year plan to bring cell service underground, London expects that its Tube customers will be “checking their emails” by 2012. In a release published last week, Transport for London announced that it is soliciting bids from telecom providers who would wire the system’s 120 systems for wireless access in advance of next year’s Summer Olympics. Their system is older than ours and deeper, and yet, I’d imagine they’ll have cellular access underground before we do. Need I say more?
A long delayed plan to bring cell service to six stations in Chelsea — and eventually the entire city — is currently ahead of schedule, DNA Info reported yesterday. Transit Wireless, the MTA contractor tasked with bringing cell signals underground, will soon begin installing fiberoptics near the various 14th St. stations on the West Side that service the L, A/C/E and 1/2/3 trains as well as the local stop at 23rd St. and 8th Ave. This six-station pilot will be the first step in a long-awaited effort to bring the 21st Century to the early 20th Century system.
These stations have been on the proverbial map for nearly three and a half years. In September of 2007, the MTA signed a deal with Transit Wireless to wire these six stations, it became clear that the company didn’t have the resources to fulfill its terms. The deal languished for nearly three years until Jay Walder vowed to get it back on track. Last July, Transit Wireless found an investor and signed up some carriers with a 2012 debut in mind.
Now, things are moving forward, and straphangers may be able to anticipate subway cell service within the next year. Of course, the millions of riders who use aboveground stations already enjoy cellular signals in the subway, but that won’t stop people from bemoaning rude callers. Will it be a a panacea or a prison?
I’ve been sitting on this piece for about 10 days as I just haven’t found an ideal time to post it. It does make for some good weekend reading. So check out Jim Baker’s “Does wi-fi on transit attract riders?” at Mass Transit Mag. Baker explores how a few commuter rail lines — one in Santa Clara, another in Texas — the Oxford Tube bus route in London and Amtrak are judging the popularity of wi-fi offerings on board. Amtrak, for instance, says that 39 percent of Acela riders have made use of their free wi-fi, and they believe the offering will increase ridership — and thus revenue — by $4.3 million over the next five years.
I wonder though if asking about ridership is the proper question. By itself, wi-fi can draw commuters from other transit modalities and can draw customers from one bus line to another. Across greater distances (and outside of the Northeast Corridor), Amtrak isn’t competing with airlines, but it is going up against bus routes that already offer wi-fi. The key question though is one of passenger benefits. Will riders be more productive and thus more accepting of a longer commute if they’re plugged in for the duration? The answer to should be yes, and that’s why wi-fi, free or not, should drive ridership.
With MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder pushing hard for technological innovation underground, Transit Wireless renewed its attempts at bringing cell and wifi service to the subway system. The company’s three-year old plan had fallen by the wayside struggled to secure financial backing. When the money came in, so too did the cell companies.
As Business Week reported late last week, AT&T and T-Mobile have signed on to offer their service in the subways. The two cell companies have reportedly inked ten-year deals with Transit Wireless, and the deals can be renewed four times for five years each. As Michael Grynbaum reports, the service should be ready to go in six stations around 14th St. by the end of 2011, and Transit Wireless will have the entire underground part of the subway system cell-ready by the end of 2015.
While this project is well behind Transit Wireless’ initial launch date, that carriers are serious about it is a very good sign. As Walder said to The Times, “Phone carriers signing on is further proof that this project is a reality.” No longer will the subways be the last bastion of relief from cell signals, and in a few years, we’ll find out if constant access brings with a panacea or a prison in this hyper-connecte city of ours.
As the MTA has once again renewed its vow to bring cell service and wifi underground, many have wondered if constant connectivity is truly good or if the yammering masses will slowly drive us all insane. I’ve long been of the belief that cell access on platforms only won’t lead to louder waits. The subway system isn’t a quiet and peaceful arena today, and the vast above-ground portions have long had cell service. Riders along the elevated routes haven’t become boorish on their phones.
Today, Heather Haddon and Katherine Lieb unveil the secrets of underground cell service and highlight those stations that already have cell access either from street-level grates or from nearby landmarks. Nearly four dozen of the 277 underground stations have service at some point or another. The list, available on amNew York’s website, includes 30 IRT stations, many of which aren’t very far below ground, and a handful of the oldest BMT stops along the R. Only a few IND stops have service because they were built relatively deep underground. Nevins St. in Brooklyn has long been my favorite transfer point between the East and West Side IRT lines because of its stellar cell service.
As news of the MTA’s revived attempt to outfit its underground subway stations with cell and wifi service gains steam, the authority has released the details of its revised deal with Transit Wireless. If all goes according to plan, the city’s 277 underground stops could be fully wired within six years, and while the MTA could realize a few hundred million in revenue and New Yorkers would be able to take advantage of 21st century technology while waiting for the subway, many are wondering if this new service will create a subterranean panacea or a cell-phone prison.
When the reports surfaced that the Transit Wireless deal was back on track, the initial stories were spares on the details, but Bloomberg’s Greg Bensinger and Amy Thomson dug them up. In essence, the terms of similar to the original deal in that Transit Wireless will pay the MTA $46 million to start the project and will foot the $200 million bill for installation as well. The funding will come in part from Transit Wireless’ new partner Broadcast Australia, that company that retrofitted Hong Kong’s metro for wireless service.
Although Broadcast Australia would not reveal the extent of its financial obligations, company officials seemed optimistic that their involvement would be beneficial all around. “We’ve been scanning for opportunities like this one,” Chris Jaeger, the managing director of international business, said. “The project fits very neatly with our business aspirations.”
The original plans called for the following stations to be wired first: 23rd Street and 14th Street on the Eighth Avenue line (A/C/E), 14th Street on the Seventh Avenue line (1/2/3), 14th Street on the Sixth Avenue line (F/M), and Eighth Avenue and Sixth Avenue on the L line. According to Bloomberg News, those stations will be wired first, and the project will start within the next two months. After that, says Transit Wireless, stations “could be completed at a rate of 10 to 15 per month.” That seems wildly optimistic for an MTA technology outfit, but if these companies have the expertise, it wouldn’t be an impossible goal to meet. The company says blueprinting and surveying work is through, and since only the stations — and not the tunnels — will be wired, the work will be unobtrusive.
The next step is the toughest. As was the case back in 2007, it’s no sure thing carriers would sign up. Now, as then, the cell companies will have to make sure that the Transit Wireless fees make sense. With such widespread adoption of cell phones and the prevalence of smart phones and data-ready devices, carriers ought to jump at a chance to bring their signals underground.
So then we arrive at the controversial question: Will cell service underground bring a fresh hell to the subways or will it just be an extension of business as usual? Those who never leave parts of Manhattan south of 125th St. are growing concerned that cell service will ruin that one quiet hour a day, but the truth is that subway cell service is far from unique or new. Although the 277 underground stations — with the exception of those close enough to the surface to pick up signals — aren’t currently wired, the 191 stations above ground have always been cell-phone ready. In the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, straphangers make their phone calls, check their email and idly surf the net while killing time before the train arrives. At the underground stations lucky enough to get spotty service, the same happens. The world, as far as I know, has not ended.
Underground, in cramped quarters where sound carries, the situation may be a little different. Straphangers may grow wary of hearing each other’s conversations echo throughout the station, and the rush to get in a 20-second phone call as the train pulls into a cell-equipped station may start to drive everyone nuts. But it’s a part of moving society forward. Enough people are mindful of their conversations. Enough people will make use of their smart phones to be productive. The underground world will not end.
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.
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.