Management & Operations

Subways: Going Cellular to Boost Service

Posted on January 28, 2008 by Aaron Glazer

The days when the only conversations on a New York City subway platform were between waiting passengers may soon come to an end. Over the course of the next two years, six downtown Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) New York City Transit (NYCT) subway stations will be set up to handle wireless communications, including mobile phone access.

NYCT awarded the contract in late 2007 to Transit Wireless LLC, a consortium which intends to roll out the services to the system’s remaining 271 underground stations over the next six years.

NYCT selected the company, which was created by Dianet Communications, Nab Construction, Q-Wireless and Transit Technologies to bid on the project, from four bids submitted in late 2005.

The wireless communication (WiCom) system will bring cellular telephone signals and wireless Internet to subway stations — but not subway cars — in the country’s largest mass transit system. The estimated $150 to $200 million cost of installing the network will be covered by Transit Wireless, who will then rent out access to service providers.

Equal system access

Unlike some of the more traditional systems, which provide cell phone access tied to a specific provider, Transit Wireless says it will offer all mobile telephone companies equal access to the system.

Jeff Just, president of Dianet Communications, explains that Transit Wireless will design, manage, maintain and host the system for the benefit of both NYCT and the wireless providers who rent access to the system, but will not serve as a provider itself.

For riders, this means all wireless carriers will have the ability to purchase access to the system and provide wireless coverage underground.

While BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit District) launched a similar open network in stations in downtown San Francisco in late 2005, subway operators have historically partnered with a single mobile telephone company to provide service. Chicago Transit Authority and Washington D.C.’s Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) both offer service only to riders with U.S. Cellular and Verizon, respectively, or to users whose phones can roam on those networks.

While Transit Wireless has yet to sign agreements with any of the mobile phone carriers, the company says negotiations are ongoing. As part of the NYCT contract, the company must enter into an arrangement with at least one mobile phone carrier before beginning to build the system for the remaining stations.

Alex Mashinsky of Q-Wireless Inc. says, “The whole idea is that the MTA wanted what was in the best interest of the user, and what’s in the best interest of the user is that the [operator] will be completely independent of the carriers. The five largest carriers’ interest is not to let anybody new into the game. The MTA decided that they wanted to give everybody equal opportunity.”

New York’s system is also designed to handle a variety of broadcast frequencies, meaning it will be able to not only transmit wireless telephone and Internet signals, but potentially AM/FM radio, television and similar broadcasts.

“The idea is that anything you’re able to get on the outside, you’ll be able to get indoors as well,” says Mashinsky. “We’ll accommodate any frequency, any modulation. We can accommodate anything that anybody wants to do.” Because of the systems’ design, it should also be able to adapt to future broadcasting technologies.

Offering multiple services

As the concept of wireless communication changes, it’s moving away from just providing mobile phone access toward ubiquitous access to the Internet and other communications networks.

The Transit Wireless award includes providing access to wireless data services such as Wi-Fi and Wi-Max Internet, and the company hopes to ultimately offer wireless Internet data connections throughout stations so that users with laptops, PDAs and Wi-Fi-enabled phones can have continual access. Out in California, BART already has a private company piloting a program to provide high-speed wireless Internet access on their trains.

In its initial stages, Transit Wireless’ network will only cover the subway stations and not the tunnels, meaning riders will lose connection between many stations. Mashinsky says, however, that some stations are close enough together that service may be available while traveling between them.

By wiring only stations, Transit Wireless expects to minimize disruptions to train service, as they will rarely need to access the tunnels or tracks. They expect to wire all public areas of the subway stations, including the platforms, waiting areas and transfer passages.

The company says it has designed a special temperature-resistant transmission box for use specifically in the subway and will use small, low-power antennas to broadcast the signals. The company believes it can set up most of the broadcasting facilities in public areas. Ownership of the infrastructure will be split between NYCT and Transit Wireless.

Regardless if passengers can use their phones in trains, the availability of cell phone service in subway stations has elicited mixed response from riders. According to NYCT spokesman Paul Fleuranges, while “some appreciate the ability to stay in touch while waiting for a train, others like the fact that the subway is the one place where you can’t be reached or reach someone.”

In fact, even though the tunnels are not scheduled to be wired, some New York City Council members are already publicly calling for the introduction of subway “quiet cars,” where cell phone conversations would not be allowed. Long-haul train systems like Amtrak already offer cell phone-free train cars.

Boon to safety, security

Linton Johnson, chief spokesman for BART, says his agency has found cellular access helps people feel better about their personal safety. And, he says, it helps the agency get information about crimes faster, as riders can call in and report issues as they are happening, rather than after the fact.

The cellular service in the New York subways will make use of Enhanced 911 (E911), which can provide cell phone location data to the 911 dispatch center. Mashinsky says that their E911 system will be able to localize the cell phone caller between the nearest two antennas and then be able to provide the nearest tunnel and pathways automatically to dispatchers. He expects to identify callers within 30 feet to 40 feet of their location in the station.

According to Mashinsky, the 911 service should be available to anyone with a cell phone, even if their carrier has not signed up to provide service in the subway.

While most transit agencies are still using their proprietary radio systems to communicate underground, they are beginning to use the cellular networks as supplemental and redundant communication networks. BART personnel often make use of the cellular service in the stations for SMS and email communication, and NYCT has touted the system as a way to help improve communication in the event of an emergency like last year’s flooding. In more mundane circumstances, they say, it will allow customers and employees to communicate with friends, family and employers while waiting for trains.

Some have expressed concern about the potential for cell phone-triggered terrorism attacks in the system, however, Dianet Communications’ Just says NYCT also talked to federal agencies about terrorism-related concerns and determined it was more important for people to have the ability to call and report suspicious items. NYCT says it does not comment on issues related to security.

As part of the build-out of the initial six stations, Transit Wireless has to prove that their system doesn’t interfere with NYCT operations or communications. Both NYCT and BART say they maintain control over the wireless communication systems and can shut down service in cases where it interferes with operations or in an emergency.

Revenue generator

For the agencies, most of these agreements come at no cost to the taxpayers and many have been touted as ways to generate revenue and limit fare increases.

NYCT will receive a share of revenues generated through leasing the wireless communication networks to mobile phone service providers, wireless Internet providers and others.

Just explains, “We charge wireless carriers and Wi-Fi providers to go on the system. If they want to reach the customers, they pay us each month. We share that payment with the agency.”

While NYCT won’t receive an upfront payment, Transit Wireless does have a minimum monthly revenue sharing payment and estimates that it will earn at least $46 million in revenue sharing over the first ten years of the agreement.

Transit Wireless was awarded the contract, in part, because it offered the highest payment to the agency. According to published reports, other bidders offered payments ranging from as little as $40 up to $6.2 million over the course of ten years.

BART, whose system was wired primarily by Sprint/Nextel but is open to all carriers, also receives a portion of revenues from their cellular system, although Johnson says the details of that arrangement haven’t yet been made public. Press reports indicate that the agreements bring in several hundred dollars in additional revenue a year.

The systems can also provide additional advertising opportunities for agencies. Just points out that once the infrastructure is in place, NYCT could use it for its own projects, such as “providing news, sports and weather on screens.”

Other agencies seem poised to follow in New York’s footsteps. WMATA, which made its agreement with Verizon (then Bell Atlantic) in the early 1990s, recently announced that it will solicit proposals to create a similar wireless communication system in its 47 stations and 50 miles of tunnel. According to agency spokesperson Candace Smith, WMATA hopes the system will support voice, data and emergency communication services, in addition to opening cellular phone services to other providers.

In California, BART expects to expand its cell phone and wireless Internet coverage to more stations and tunnels in 2008.

Because the expansion is being paid for by the wireless carriers, says Johnson, it’s up to them to put up the investment, but the agency is hoping to wire their downtown Oakland stations and several tunnels in the first quarter of 2008. “We want our customers coming in from the suburbs to have a continuous signal as they come into downtown Oakland and San Francisco,” he says.

Transit Wireless says it will begin wiring its six pilot stations, all around 14th street, early this year. Following the pilot and the full system build out, the company will have a ten-year base agreement, followed by two five-year optional extensions. After the build out of the initial systems, the company says they will consider expanding coverage to inside the train tunnels.

Either way, New Yorkers will have many years of subway station cell phone

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