Home Subway Cell Service Underground cell service: a panacea or a prison?

Underground cell service: a panacea or a prison?

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Scott E August 4, 2010 - 8:01 am

Is there a connector between the Eighth Avenue station and the others along 14th Street, other than the “L” line tunnel? That these will be turned up together suggests that they are tied together directly, and while the other stations have walkable passageways between them, the 8th Avenue line does not (for the public, anyway). In my opinion, coordinating track outages in order to run cable between stations is the Achilles’ Heel in this project, given the timelines stated. Hopefully this coordination has already occurred.

Since this is a “for-profit” venture on the part of both the contractor and the MTA (assuming the business model makes sense, which I’ve questioned before), perhaps it will sail through more quickly than a typical project that does not make money and is just a “nuisance” for the agency.

Benjamin Kabak August 4, 2010 - 8:15 am

In my opinion, coordinating track outages in order to run cable between stations is the Achilles’ Heel in this project, given the timelines stated.

Not quite sure what you mean here, Scott. Both the Bloomberg article and my reporting say that the work to bring wireless underground won’t interfere with subway service because they’re wiring platforms and not tunnels. Transit Wireless will be installing relays and antenna devices in stations but won’t be entering tunnels to do any sort of wiring work.

Scott E August 4, 2010 - 8:58 am

Just because they aren’t putting service in the tunnels doesn’t mean they won’t be running any cabling to connect stations to each other. The architecture of a system such as this involves a central hub where the individual service providers install their equipment, and then fiberoptic lines leading to remote locations where the system host (Transit Wireless) installs amplifiers and antennas.

It’s no different than any other telecom system (cameras, ethernet) distributed across all the stations. Even if it’s not actually used in the tunnel, the signals still pass through cabling in the tunnels.

bob August 4, 2010 - 11:56 am

Given the cost and time delays of installing cable in tunnel (you need service diversions that are charged to the contractor, not always easy to get) it seems more likely each station will wire to the general telecom backbone(s) for the city independently rather than having a central hub for all subway wireless service. (Unless the TA is going to give them free passage on its internal fiber network.) This is different than the other systems such as cameras and ethernet, because those are internal for TA use, and this is the opposite, it’s only for public use.

But Ben gives no consideration to the real engineering issues. Where is all the equipment (power supplies, amplifiers, etc.) going to go in the stations? There isn’t room for the stuff the TA wants to put in for its own use as it is. This stuff puts out a lot of heat – how will that be removed, so it doesn’t self-destuct? (Yes, it’s happened, it gets so hot stuff melts.)

Broadcast Australia has never worked in the NY Subway. I’ve only ridden Hong Kong as a passenger, but I’m pretty sure it’s a very different environment to get things done. The Bloomberg article makes no mention of the other partners, who’s experience in NYC is not a positive: the oft-delayed PA/CIS system, and several other projects that are years late and with costs far higher than the initial bid. Dig a bit deeper Ben: find out from the MTA current schedule and budget status for all the contracts listed on the Transit Wireless website: http://www.transitwireless.com/who.htm In particular ask what the original end date was for all those projects.

I’m skeptical how much the telecom companies will pay for access. I don’t think it will be make-or-break for attracting customers – you connect as soon as you get above ground anyway.

I expect Broadcast Australia is in for a rude awakening.

bob August 4, 2010 - 12:12 pm

Looking at the original article again, in fairness, I have to say there is a lot of “backstage” space in the chosen station complexes to put the equipment (although handling the heat is still an issue). One set of equipment ought to handle platforms for several different lines, running cable and antenna through the passageways.

But I can’t imagine how they will do this in the bulk of the stations with no excess space. Let alone at a rate of three per week.

Scott E August 4, 2010 - 1:27 pm

Bob, you are exactly right. Space and heat are a real concern. That’s why I’m suggesting that the head-end equipment would be concentrated in one area (possibly even a leased space above-ground), and a fiber-optic distributed antenna system (DAS) would branch out, feeding multiple stations. The DAS equipment is relatively small (can be wall- or ceiling mounted) and inexpensive when compared to the head-end stuff. To put an entire setup at each station is extremely costly and impractical.

Also consider maintenance. Each carrier would need to access its own equipment at the “head-end”, but only Transit Wireless, who has an agreement with the MTA, would need access areas downstream from there.

I still never learned though, is there a passageway from the 8th Ave/14th St station to the others (1/2/3/L/F/M) in which to install cables?

Benjamin Kabak August 4, 2010 - 1:35 pm

I still never learned though, is there a passageway from the 8th Ave/14th St station to the others (1/2/3/L/F/M) in which to install cables?

There is indeed a passageway between 8th and 7th Aves. underneath 14th St. Right now, it’s closed to public use, but I’m sure there’s equipment space in there.

bob August 4, 2010 - 5:25 pm

I hadn’t thought of a distributed system like you propose. That does make sense…I wonder if, say in Manhattan they could just tie into the existing cell sites on buildings. There are lots of them.

I’ve been dealing with heat issues on other equipment, which is why I emphasize it so much.

Quite frankly they may also be counting on using the TA fiber network (one of the companies in this partnership is in on the current expanision – see the web page linked above). If they go to Walder at some point and say they need it to make it work (or to finish faster or less expensive) he may say yes to score a victory. That would allow them to put a lot of the smaller stations on one equipment package.

Scott E August 4, 2010 - 9:23 pm

Bob, I work in the business, I know Distributed Antenna Systems rather well. It’s a common approach to in-building systems.

As far as tying into existing cell sites, there are two approaches: an off-air repeater (which listens to the above-ground network and retransmits below-ground), or a wired repeater. The off-air repeater poses problems since it alters cell coverage and interference. The wired repeater is impractical because different carriers use different rooftops, and all need separate connections to the underground DAS hub. Both will add traffic to an already at- or over-capacity cell site.

Unless there is a radical change in culture, I wouldn’t expect a shared fiber-network. The TA is very territorial, and no one group would knowingly put in an installation that could be brought down by a different group.

John Paul N. August 4, 2010 - 12:32 pm

Some stations were overbuilt where there is excess space available, such as many mezzanines of former IND stations. In some cases, if there are no staircases, a “closet” or “room” could be built at the end of a platform. There are examples of this on the L line.

bob August 4, 2010 - 5:33 pm

IND mezzanines, yes, although you might still have a heat issue. Rooms on the platform level depend on the size of the equipment – some of them are pretty small. I think of this stuff as being the large boxes I see on rooftops – maybe smaller versions are available.

If you’re on the track level you also have an issue with steel dust. It gets in everywhere, and it isn’t good for electronics. Sealing the equipment adds to the heat issues. Certainly solutions can be found, but they are not easy or cheap.

Track level rooms can also raise costs by requiring service diversion/work train to bring the equipment in. That depends on the specifics of the location and equipment. But it is another cost. And if the MTA isn’t paying for this they need to be very sensitive to cost. (Since the various TA units charge contractors for services, they can run up the revenue in an amusing reversal.)

Scott E August 4, 2010 - 8:05 am

Oh, and it seems discouraging that the Bloomberg news link (2nd paragraph of the post, click “dug them up”), shows a photo of a “W” train. Foreshadowing, perhaps?

Benjamin Kabak August 4, 2010 - 8:13 am

Eh, that’s just lazy web production. They took some stock photo they had of the subway and stuck it into the article. I wouldn’t read much into it.

tacony palmyra August 4, 2010 - 10:33 am

Thanks for pointing out that the presence of cell service generally doesn’t wreak havoc on straphangers who use elevated lines. Anyone who’s rode the 7, or the JMZ, or even the F when it comes up at Smith and 9th, knows that as soon as the train comes above ground, you can whip out your phone to check for missed calls and text messages, which is convenient, but that people are largely polite about calls on the train. Opponents who think this will ruin their quiet time need to take a ride out to Flushing and check it out.

SEAN August 4, 2010 - 10:45 am


Can you here me now! Oh wait a minute, I’m underground & my voice repeats repeats peats. LOL

People will have to become mindful of there voices echoing throughout the underground stations, & nobody cares about there conversations.

This reminds me of a joke I herd on TV several years ago.

“Now that almost everyone has a cell phone, they have become an excuse to constently talk to oneself.”

I cant remember where I herd the original joke, but I rerote it to keep it current.

Hop August 4, 2010 - 12:01 pm

Not sure I understand the whole concept of “quiet time” on the subways…

A “quiet subway” is an oxymoron. So is a “quiet subway station”, especially with all the trains coming in and out of the station, all the loud music being played, station announcements, people talking loudly, etc.

People who take the subway tend to learn to tune out all sounds, and no cellphone is going to stop that.

The Danger, Boredom and Perks of Summer Work - City Room Blog - NYTimes.com August 4, 2010 - 12:34 pm

[…] perhaps, such a map will also be able to go underground, if and when wireless service becomes a reality in the subway. Whether that future will be a boon or a burden is still up for […]

John Paul N. August 4, 2010 - 12:35 pm

I wonder how many riders will be jolted when they realize that there will be no signals in some tunnels. “Peace and quiet” will be available in the East River and Harlem River tunnels.

Boris August 4, 2010 - 1:33 pm

Cell phones can take a while to reconnect after they have given up on looking for a signal. When I take a train over the Manhattan Bridge, my phone typically doesn’t reconnect until just over the halfway point of that agonizingly slow ride. The much shorter time period at a station with a signal will likely result in no connection at all, until technology considerably improves.

Scott E August 4, 2010 - 2:48 pm

This is by design, to preserve battery life. If a cell phone in a no-coverage area were to constantly scan a range of frequencies (which keeps getting larger, by the way), its battery would be dead in no time.

Todd August 4, 2010 - 4:09 pm

I notice a significant drain if I’m underground for a while, especially going from Queens to Brooklyn. Flipping the phone over to “airplane mode” helps considerably.


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