Home Subway Cell Service It’s cellmageddon in New York as mobile service heads underground!

It’s cellmageddon in New York as mobile service heads underground!

by Benjamin Kabak

It is a day of reckoning for New Yorkers who have long enjoyed the quietude, peacefulness and tranquility of the New York City Subway system for today is the day that the dreaded cell service reaches underground. Panic in the subways! Rude conversations! Cell rage! Cats and dogs living together! It’s the end of the world as we know it!

Okay, okay, okay. It’s not going to be that bad, but after reading news coverage of this event, you may be forgiven for thinking so. Everyone from CBS to The Wall Street Journal to The Times is reporting this story as though 200 stations and hundreds of miles of subway tracks aren’t aboveground with cell service. Clyde Haberman, tongue firmly in cheek, even called it the dying gasp of civilization. That honor, I believe, belongs to people who don’t know how to use the volume controls on their iPods, but I digress.

The news is, well, not new. Since 2007, the MTA and Transit Wireless has tried to equip six stations in Chelsea and along 14th Street with cell service, and after stops and starts, the pilot officially went live today at the following stations:

  • A, C, E station at Eighth Avenue and West 14th Street;
  • L station at Eighth Avenue and West 14th Street;
  • C, E station at Eighth Avenue and West 23rd Street;
  • 1, 2, 3 station at Seventh Avenue and West 14th Street;
  • F, M station at Sixth Avenue and West 14th Street;
  • L station at Sixth Avenue and West 14th Street.

The signal, while not strong in the tunnel, reportedly can span stations. Jamie Shupak from NY1 said she had full bars to 34th Street during her ride today.

Transit Wireless had originally said that the pilot would go live in mid-2012, and the MTA praised the company for exceeding expectations. “Bringing wireless service into our subway system is the latest milestone in the MTA’s effort to use technology to improve the service we provide for our customers,” \MTA Chairman and CEO Jay H. Walder said. “Whether you’re checking your email, calling your kids or looking for emergency assistance, wireless service will bring the conveniences we’re used to throughout our lives into the subway system.”

Moving forward, Transit Wireless is aiming to provide service in the remaining 271 underground stations before 2015 is out. The next 30 stations — including Times Square Herald Square and Columbus Circle — will be along the west side of Manhattan, mostly in Midtown, and they should be cell-ready within the next 12 months.

Using fiber nodes and a signal delivery system, Transit Wireless is now providing AT&T and T-Mobile service underground. It is a neutral host, though, and hopes to sign up the remaining wireless carriers soon. Currently, the company and carriers are paying 100 percent of the costs of the project, and that total covers the Transit forces that provide flagging, protection and support services. The MTA will split occupancy fee revenues and sub-licenses. “Transit Wireless has created a win-win-win scenario in the New York City subway system,” Transit Wireless CEO William A. Bayne Jr. said. “Commuters have improved access to communication; the MTA realizes additional revenue and the wireless carriers can provide added value to their customers.”

From a ridership perspective, that’s all good news. The MTA makes money while straphangers now have access to data services and cell capabilities underground. That commute won’t be dead time that may hinder productivity. The news media though has tried to turn this into some apocalypse of rudeness. “I’m planning to be more annoyed on the subway,” Chris Wancura said to The Journal.

Others echoed that complaint. “There was always something about transportation – planes, trains, subways – that no one could get in touch with you. And that was a relief,” Abby Stokes bemoaned. “Now they can.”

From quotes to headlines that suggested cell service is only now arriving in the subway, the coverage looked very Manhattan-centric this week. As a native of the island who now lives in Brooklyn, I’ve seen this battle between the so-called City and so-called Outer Boroughs unfold frequently and from both sides. With transportation policy and improvement stories, though, it creates a problematic dichotomy.

In parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island, cell service has long been a part of the commute. Take the 7 to Flushing and folks are on the phones the entire way. Journey to Coney Island, and cell phone patter is just another sound. Some people hate it; some people tune it out. By and large though, most talkers are polite enough to hold conversations at a respectable volume. The world has not ended as cell phones have invaded.

But now it’s come to Manhattan, the purview of newspapers and journalists who don’t need to cross a river. This type of coverage creates a very us-versus-them atmosphere. It’s why newspapers give only perfunctory coverage of poor intra-borough, non-Manhattan transits options. It’s why people scoff at the pipe dream of a TriboroRX line and why the G train is looked down upon by those who do not ride it very frequently. No one is championing these causes in the pages of the paper that matter because for these papers, it’s about Manhattan first and everything else second. The cohesion of a transit network that spans five boroughs is often missing from that news coverage.

Perhaps I’m being too sensitive. Perhaps reporters are just writing what their readers want to hear. Perhaps cell coverage underground — something that seemed technologically impossible for years — is just that much of a novelty. But now that people on the other end of the phone from those in the subway in Manhattan can hear them now, how about the rest of us?

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Matt September 27, 2011 - 4:11 pm

Wait — the G train is real? I thought it was just a story parents told their children: “You’d better brush your teeth, or the G train will come and get you!”

John September 27, 2011 - 5:07 pm

I understand the trepidation about potential rudeness and loud talkers on the subway, but I have to laugh at the people who bemoan the fact that now people will be able to get in touch with you on the subway. Last I checked you can still turn your phone off if you don’t want people calling or texting you! Sheesh.

Adirondacker12800 September 27, 2011 - 5:55 pm

… I’m getting old…. Being able to eavesdrop on conversations on the subway is a problem? But then I’m old enough to remember what it was like to be on an A train or D train on a hot summer day, hurtling along Central Park West, with all the windows and the doors between the cars open. Conversation wasn’t an easy task even when the doors and windows were closed. It’s a wonder that more older New Yorkers aren’t deaf…

pete September 27, 2011 - 8:16 pm

If OSHA requires ear plugs and ear muffs for the staff on the train, maybe thats a hint you should be wearing them too.

Biebs September 27, 2011 - 6:56 pm

Don’t people talk all the time on trains that are above ground in Brooklyn and Queens, or even just over the Manhattan bridge?

There will always be a few annoying people, but I think this is an overblown complaint

Andrew September 27, 2011 - 11:17 pm

Actually, Ben, I think you’ve spilled more ink on this topic than anybody. Nobody’s saying it’s the end of the world. Some people are a bit worried that their commutes are going to get a bit noisier. That’s obviously going to be the case, so why do you object?

And I still don’t understand why you’ve turned it into borough warfare. Much of the Brooklyn IRT and BMT, and almost the entire IND, are underground. And although Manhattan doesn’t have much elevated trackage, it does have some.

Alon Levy September 27, 2011 - 11:24 pm

The only elevated stations in Manhattan are in Harlem and Inwood, hardly the demographics usually associated with Manhattan when one declares borough war.

Bruce September 28, 2011 - 2:15 am

I wish the MTA could focus instead on finding some “company” that would provide effective station cleaning, re-painting, and extermination services.

Benjamin Kabak September 28, 2011 - 7:49 am

I hate this argument. The MTA can’t do two things at once that benefit riders? This program costs them nothing. Why not pursue it?

Al D September 28, 2011 - 12:02 pm

They can’t. The stations are still filthy and disgusting. Now with the brighter lighting, you can see the detritis better! 😉

Bruce M September 28, 2011 - 12:42 pm

I think it’s a question of which benefit would be the most meaningful to passengers. I could be wrong, but my guess is that given a choice, most would prefer not having to dodge rats prowling around on the platforms and boarding trains (remember the days when they stayed down on the tracks?) vs. being able to use their phone in the station.

Benjamin Kabak September 28, 2011 - 12:44 pm

I’m not really sure what your argument is though. The cost to the MTA of the cell program is literally $0, and in fact, they’re making money. Only the bare minimum of authority employees are ensuring contractor safety, but otherwise Transit Wireless is paying for installation in terms of money or manpower. How is this project diverting resources from station cleanliness?

Kai B September 28, 2011 - 7:08 am

It’s a bunch of fake outrage. As mentioned, it’s available in much of the system already (above ground), it’s currently only in stations (not able to have sustained conversations during rides), and it’s already common in the rest of the world.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines September 28, 2011 - 9:14 am

[…] Cell-mageddon! Mobile Phone Service Arrives at Tranquil Subway Platforms (WSJ, 2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Kai B September 28, 2011 - 10:58 am

FYI – I tested the speed this morning at the 8th Avenue L-Train station. It is amazingly fast: http://t.co/mS3Vy8XU

4.87Mbs on AT&T. All 3G should be this fast!

Al D September 28, 2011 - 12:06 pm

Soon I’ll be able to watch the little blue dot on my phone’s map app, going ‘through’ all sorts of buildings! Who will create the first navigation app?

petey September 28, 2011 - 1:43 pm

“Perhaps I’m being too sensitive.”

no, you’re not. we in manhattan really are superior, and you’re feeling it quite normally.

Video of the Day: The L Train Notwork :: Second Ave. Sagas November 17, 2011 - 4:57 pm

[…] the MTA works to bring cell service underground, a group of artists in — where else? — Williamsburg have decided to bring a wireless […]


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