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Cell Phone and WiFi Service Coming to the Subway, But is the City Ready?

By Sree Sreenivasan | August 2, 2010 12:59pm | Updated on August 2, 2010 12:58pm
Straphangers use their mobile devices on the subway platform.  Cellular and WiFi service is being planned for underground.
Straphangers use their mobile devices on the subway platform. Cellular and WiFi service is being planned for underground.
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Paul Lowry/Flickr

By Sree Sreenivasan

DNAinfo Contributing Editor

There was a time when this DNAinfo headline would have made me break out into a broad smile: "Manhattan Straphangers to get Cellular, WiFi Service Underground in Two Years, MTA Says."

As an admitted geek and tech addict, I should have been delighted that one more tech dead zone was about to fall. No more hunting for platform grates to stand under so I could get a cell signal. No more sending a text message as I board a train and then hoping the signal holds long enough to send the message before we enter the tunnel. No more operating the BlackBerry near what used to be called the token booth to continue a conversation while awaiting the next train.

But when that headline ran last week, instead of a smile, it triggered a frown. As nice as having underground cell and WiFi services is in theory (there are contradictory reports about whether they will work on the trains themselves), I am not sure the city is ready for them.

Here's the background: Back in 2007, a group called Transit Wireless was awarded a contract to bring cell and WiFi to the subway stations. The $200 million plan languished because of financing issues, but has since been revived because, according to a Bloomberg news report, an Australian company got involved:

As part of the deal, Broadcast Australia took a majority stake in Transit Wireless LLC, the group of wireless and construction companies that was awarded the subway contract in 2007 and promised New York City Transit about $46 million over 10 years. The system will give New York’s commuters a service people in Singapore, Berlin and Tokyo have had for years.

That reference to the Singapore and Tokyo subways is part of the problem. I have no experience with the Berlin system, but those systems in Asia are a world apart from ours. They may have WiFi and cell service, but their infrastructure, trains, platforms, etc, are clean, modern and years ahead of what we have in New York City. And that's where we need to concentrate. 

At a time when transit service has been reduced, jobs have been cut and more fare hikes are being proposed (did you hear about the possible $104 monthly Metrocard?), I am not so excited about getting what seems to me like like a frill we don't need right away. And the $46 million NYC Transit would get? That's less than $5 million a year spread over 10-plus years and a tiny drop in a budget hole of $900 million.

I am all for technology coming into the subway. For example, the new electonic arrival-time clocks slowly debuting across the city are the most amazing advances in commuting since the arrival of the MetroCard. Once they are installed everywhere and work properly, it will help reduce some underground anxiety and keep visitors from London saying, "Our Underground has had that system for years."

Proponents of the program will point to the increased security that being able to call 911 from the platforms and the trains will bring. I, however, think the best way to increase security is to have more station agents, rather than laying them off.

I am not against WiFi coming to places it hasn't been freely available before. The launch of the free WiFi at Starbucks, for example, is wonderful. But I just want us to make sure we have the subway basics working well first.

One line in the DNAinfo's write-up about the subway system gave me extra reason to worry: "To use their phones underground, riders have to have cell phone service from companies that pay Transit Wireless to carry signals." That itself sounds like more fees and more trouble to me.

What do YOU think? Are you excited about this? Let me know via Twitter @sreenet or via the comments below.

Every week, DNAinfo contributing editor Sree Sreenivasan, a Columbia Journalism School professor, shares his observations about the changing media landscape.