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.