New York City’s subway tunnels, between just a handful of places in the sprawling metropolis where cell phone services are out of reach, will be connected to connect riders traveling underground, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
The authority, which manages the city’s metro system, said it will take 10 years to complete the task due to the scale of the project. Crews will install infrastructure along 418 miles of underground track — roughly the distance from New York City to Cleveland — with no additional service interruptions.
The $600 million project will be paid for and built by Transit Wireless, a New York-based communications infrastructure company, which already provides access to cell phones and Wi-Fi services in all of the city’s 281 underground subway stations. The project will also extend Wi-Fi service to all 191 overground stations and to 21 Staten Island Railway stations. The Authority’s board approved the proposal at a meeting this week. An official from the agency said the project was in a design phase.
Danny Pearlstein, a spokesperson for Riders Alliance, a grassroots transit rider organization, praised the decision and said there were no downsides to fully connecting the system to cell phone networks.
“Riders would like more connectivity,” said Mr Pearlstein. “Extensive cell service will make the metro safer and easier to get work done and stay connected on board.”
Subway passengers will be able to use their mobile devices when each section of the tunnel system is completed, although project leaders have not yet decided which train lines will be worked on first.
Scott Christiansen, a spokesperson for Transit Wireless, said users can connect to cellular data if they’re signed up for service through a major cellular network provider — such as Verizon, T-Mobile or AT&T — just as they can now when they’re above ground. . The company said it is a neutral host network provider and does not collect any personal information from mobile devices.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is not suspending service, delaying trains or allowing them to run on different tracks to carry out the project, authorities said. Instead, when scheduled maintenance occurs within the system that requires a service interruption, such as track, signal or switch work, the crews will install the new infrastructure.
“We think this is a great project for our clients and for the MTA,” said Fredericka Cuenca, the authority’s deputy chief development officer for planning, at the board meeting.
Transit Wireless expects to recoup the cost of the project by generating revenue through license fees, monetizing data analytics and renting fiber optic cables to network providers, according to documents from the authority’s board. Once Transit Wireless has recouped its $600 million investment, it will share a portion of its revenue with the authority — 20 percent for six years, before steadily increasing to 40 percent from the 15th year after payback. The authority will also take advantage of free Wi-Fi and dedicated fiber access to support its operations.
The authority expects to receive more than $400 million in benefits — including revenue and cost savings — over the term of the agreement. The deal allows the authority to phase out payments to Transit Wireless for services such as leased fiber, real-time train arrival information and the subway’s Help Point device system, which allows riders to call 911 and get information at designated locations.
Transit Wireless has been building cell phones and Wi-Fi services throughout the metro system since 2007. The deal grants the private company a 20-year contract with the authority, which can then be extended for two additional five-year terms at the discretion of the agency.
The company set up Wi-Fi and cell phone service on the L line two years ago. The Brooklyn-Manhattan line on the L Line became the first tunnel in the New York City subway system to provide full connectivity to AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile customers.
Several other transit systems around the world are already equipped with or are in the process of building similar technology.
In Northern California, Bay Area Rapid Transit plans to install Wi-Fi at all 50 stations by 2024.
At this week’s meeting, the authority also revealed it will be in a $2.5 billion deficit by 2025 — a year earlier than expected — in large part because passenger numbers have plummeted during the pandemic and the federal government’s emergency response to that time will be used up.
Authorities officials also came a step closer to implementing a congestion pricing program that would charge tolls for drivers entering Manhattan under 60th Street and use the proceeds to fund improvements to the city’s public transit network. The authority has added five appointees to a panel that will recommend tolls, credits and discounts for the program, and the agency has unveiled plans to release an environmental assessment of the pricing plan next month.