Home MTA Technology Underground cell service plan still on hold

Underground cell service plan still on hold

by Benjamin Kabak

In writing yesterday on the MTA contractor charged with fraud, I noted that the transit agency’s pilot program to outfit stations with cell service seemed to be on terminal hold. After all, the public unveiling of the plan arrived in September of 2007, and over 20 months later, nothing very much has happened.

Today, we learn that, despite the approaching internal deadline the plan remains on hold for a reason. As Bobby Cuza reports, Transit Wireless, the company awarded the contract to outfit six stations with cell service, has not yet received a Notice to Proceed because it does not have sufficient financial backing. “This doesn’t even seem like they have to go back to square one. It sounds like they never left the drawing board to begin with,” John Liu, city council member and Transportation Committee head, said to Cuza.

The NY1 reporter has more:

When Liu held a hearing in October 2007, MTA officials said they expected the Notice To Proceed would be issued within two months. But the MTA now says the contractor, a consortium of companies called Transit Wireless, never met the required conditions, which included demonstrating sufficient financing. Transit Wireless had no comment but the MTA acknowledged the group was hindered by the economic downturn.

“Unfortunately, the private sector response now to it, given the economy, has caused that to be stalled, not surprising. Again, just because of the overall economy,” said Former MTA Executive Director & CEO Lee Sander. “So the capacity is there, and hopefully the market will come back, and we will have that pilot move forward.”

In a statement released Thursday, the MTA said, “We continue to work with the contractor and hope that a resolution can be reached in the near future. The MTA remains committed to providing cellular service in underground subway stations.”

The agency, however, did not provide a new timetable.

At this stage, it’s worth noting two aspects to this story: First, Transit Wireless was created for the express purpose of winning this contract. As their website — not updated since 2007 — says, “Transit Wireless was formed specifically to respond to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Request for Proposals to design, market, install, own, operate and maintain a neutral, shared wireless infrastructure to provide seamless, uninterrupted commercial wireless services to the MTA’s New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) riders within the 277 underground subway stations in New York City.”

Second, while Cuza’s reporting yet again brings this story into the spotlight, this financial trouble should not be blamed upon the current economy. Back in October 2007, I noted that Transit Wireless seemed like a shaky company with no secure financing. Back then, I wrote, “It sounds like the MTA signed a 10-year deal worth around $200 million with a company that doesn’t really exist and may not have the funds to pay up or implement its plan.”

While the MTA didn’t pay anything for this deal and stands to lose only the revenue it would have drawn in from a successful implementation, the costs are steep. The agency is now two years behind in its modernization efforts with no relief in sight. Another technology upgrade — a program in place in transit systems around the world — is falling by the wayside.

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rufustfyrfly June 5, 2009 - 8:33 am

I really hope this never gets up and running. They banned cell phones on planes for a reason. Maybe if they just set it up so you could only use text messaging and call 911, I’d be fine with it. Otherwise, this is just going to make my subway rides so much worse.

petey June 5, 2009 - 8:43 am

i second that emotion

Scott E June 5, 2009 - 9:39 am

The reason cell-phones are banned from airplanes because the cellular networks could not support it — putting a transmitter so high above the ground would cause all kinds of interference to the terrestrial network. (I worked for years doing cellular RF network engineering, so I know what I’m talking about).

Financially, this subway project never really stood a chance. Transit Wireless would need to pay, according to the original 2007 blog post, $400 million total over ten years in a combination of “rights fees” to the MTA and for equipment. This averages out to $3 mil per month. To break even, if each carrier (AT&T, Sprint-Nextel, T-Mobile, Verizon, MetroPCS) hopped on board, they’d need to pay an exorbitant $600,000 per month – which they would NEVER agree to, especially to not get tunnel coverage. [Recall that four carriers submitted a bid to pay, collectively, $40 for the ten years, or a dollar per month per service provider – in 2007]. We haven’t yet considered the additional costs of utilities (power/telco), maintenance, or cost overruns — or any sort of profit for Transit Wireless. We also haven’t touched on WiFi, which has been proven to be unsustainable as a free, ad-supported, service.

Unless TW was willing to operate in the red for ten years, or to use this as a giant billboard to get more lucrative deals elsewhere in the country, it was doomed from the start. If someone did their homework, it wouldn’t have taken two years to realize this.

Rhywun June 5, 2009 - 9:56 am

The only positive thing I see about underground service is in case of an emergency. And how often is that?

Otherwise, this is vast waste of money for almost no benefit. Is it really so hard to for people to go without yapping for a hour or two a day??

Ariel June 5, 2009 - 11:45 am

I strongly disagree with the commentators who say this is a waste of money. Not only should the MTA wire the stations, but they should wire the tunnels as well.

It is absolutely vital to improve our communication capacity around the city in order to remain competitive and cutting-edge. Advancing technological modernizations such as this one would increase our potential for economic growth by enhancing our ability to exchange information.

The overall benefits of increasing our communication capabilities trumps any nuisance that cellphone users will cause in an already noisy subway system.

Scott E June 5, 2009 - 12:01 pm

Rhywun – On the contrary – it’s not a waste of money, it’s a source of revenue for the MTA – just so long as it’s priced appropriately. When you ask for $3 million per month for rent, the apartment remains vacant.

The safety issue remains debatable. The system can be used to call for help, but it also can be used to receive bomb-detonating calls.

Son of Spam June 5, 2009 - 3:09 pm

I thought the “bomb-detonating calls” theory was debunked years ago. It’s just as easy for the remote bomber to set up a timer on the phone than it is to call into it. Putting wireless service in tunnels will not increase the chances of a bomb incident.

Alon Levy June 5, 2009 - 4:07 pm

No, bombs are detonated by timers, or manually by suicide bombers. In London they used cellphone alarm clocks, which work even when there’s no cell coverage.

R2 June 5, 2009 - 3:10 pm

I’m tired of the safety issue crap. On the LIRR, there is cell phone service in the East River tunnels. If someone had wanted to cause trouble, it would have happened already!

herenthere June 5, 2009 - 7:55 pm

Someone should make a song based on Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It” song and put the Fare Hike Four and state reps at blame for the MTA’s deteriorating condition. 🙂

Scott E June 5, 2009 - 11:32 pm

OK, point taken. I understand that There’s More Than One Way to Bomb a Subway (there’s an eerie title if I ever heard one), but its still an argument that will be used by opponents to in-tunnel cell service.

DC’s Metro moves toward a fully wired system :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog August 25, 2009 - 1:04 pm

[…] service. Nearly two years later, nothing has come from the ten-year contract the MTA inked with a less-than-secure company. Meanwhile, a few hundred miles to the south, the District of Columbia’s WMATA is continuing […]

New York Subway Getting Wired | TheCityFix.com July 27, 2010 - 9:15 am

[…] stations for cell phone and internet service. But plans to outfit the stations were put on “terminal hold” because of concerns that Transit Wireless was not financially […]


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