D.C. expands subway station cell phone service

Posted on October 16, 2009

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) expanded its cell phone service capability in 20 of busiest underground stations. Metrorail riders are able to use three major cell phone providers in addition to the existing Verizon Wireless service to make calls from 20 station platforms. Eventually, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile services will be available from anywhere inside the stations.

“It’s important for Metro customers to realize that, initially, expanded cell phone service is only from the platforms of 20 of our busiest underground stations,” said Metro GM John Catoe. “Customers should expect to see continual improvement in their cell phone coverage and call quality as additional enhancements to the wireless network are made.”

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless have installed hardware at no cost to Metro that will allow Metrorail customers to make calls, send text messages or surf the Web from inside the following 20 stations: Ballston, Bethesda, Columbia Heights, Crystal City, Dupont Circle, Farragut North, Farragut West, Federal Triangle, Foggy Bottom-GWU, Friendship Heights, Gallery Pl-Chinatown, Judiciary Square, L’Enfant Plaza, McPherson Square, Metro Center, Pentagon, Pentagon City, Rosslyn, Smithsonian and Union Station.

During the next few weeks, the team of cell phone providers will continue to enhance the wireless network at these stations to provide callers with continuous coverage from the street into each station. Customers also will have broadband data network access.

Wireless service for the remaining 27 underground stations and for the entire Metrorail system is slated for completion by October 2012.

As part of the new wireless network installation, large cabinets that house cellular electronics have been installed in stations in areas that do not impede the flow of customers or impact the safe operation of the Metrorail system. New cables and antennae also were installed late at night when the Metrorail system was closed.

Previously, Metro riders could only receive cell phone service from multiple providers at above-ground stations. Until now, the underground wireless network only supported Verizon customers and Sprint phones that roamed onto the Verizon network. In 1993, Metro agreed to allow Bell Atlantic Mobile Systems, which later became Verizon Wireless, to build and maintain the first wireless network. In exchange, Verizon built a public safety radio communications system for Metro and paid annual fees to Metro. Verizon has offered wireless service in the Metrorail system since 1994.

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless are responsible for owning, operating and maintaining the new wireless network. The firms also will build a second wireless network, which Metro will own, operate and maintain for Metro’s own public safety and operational communications. The second network will support future plans to launch The Metro Channel, which will provide riders with rail and bus service information, news and advertising via video monitors in stations, trains and buses.

The wireless contract is expected to generate approximately $25 million for Metro during the initial 15-year contract and an additional $27 million during the five, two-year renewal terms. Other FCC licensed and unlicensed carriers may gain access to the networks either through entering into agreements with Metro or the group of carriers, which would produce additional revenue for the transit agency.

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