Can you hear me now? For subway riders that want to use their mobile devices while commuting in New York City, the answer is finally “yes.”

Cellular service was turned on at six different stations in Manhattan last month, enabling underground travelers to make calls, send text messages and surf the Internet while waiting for their trains.

The Big Apple joins San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Washington D.C. as major U.S. cities to offer subway cellular service. Those cities went live with their own municipal transit cell networks in 2006, 2006, 2007 and 2009, respectively.

NYC began the work for its subway cellular system in 2007, but Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman with the Metropolitan Transit Association (MTA), which runs the subway, said the delay in getting stations online was due to a lack of demand and funding.

“From a historical perspective, there wasn’t an appetite to do so,” Ortiz explained. “When the decision was made to bring someone in, the company essentially had some financial issues due to the downturn on the economy. They were finally able to get an investor to put up some capital to move forward with the project.”

Transit Wireless was charged with building the cellular network for MTA. The company was acquired by Broadcast Australia, an underground wireless infrastructure development company, in 2010.

Not everyone can use the system, however. Currently, only riders using the AT&T and T-Mobile carriers will have connectivity on the six platforms that have been wired for cell service. Ortiz said Transit Wireless is in negotiations with other carriers, but so far, he said that user feedback has been “all pretty positive.”

William A. Bayne Jr., CEO of Transit Wireless, said that the company hopes to conclude negotiations with remaining providers such as Verizon Wireless, Sprint, Metro PCS and others over the next 60 days.

Obviously we are compelled to design a system that can support a ... multitude of carriers and applications,” he said. “It’s a bit of a risk we’ve taken on our back without having everybody signed up day one, but if we had to retrofit later on, it will be even more dramatically more expensive and complicated.”

Transit Wireless expects to provide service to the remaining 271 underground stations in the next four years. Work has already begun on the next 30 locations on the west side of Manhattan, which are expected to go online next year. Those stops include Times Square, Herald Square and Columbus Circle.

System Development

Instead of having each carrier put up antennae in the subway, Transit Wireless rents bandwidth to providers and provides the hardware throughout each subway station. Ortiz said that while rolling out the network may sound like a simple process, getting each platform connected to the cellular system is “quite a bit of work.”

The carriers put their base station antennas in a Transit Wireless Base Station Hotel — a facility that hosts the company’s distribution equipment — and the base stations connect to Transit Wireless’ equipment. Radio signals are combined, converted to optical signals and are distributed on Transit Wireless’ optic cable to remote fiber nodes in the subway stations.

Those nodes are located on the platforms, station mezzanines and at various points within public access passageways. A network management team then monitors activity and if it detects problems, a crew will provide alerts so that technicians can look into them.

The cell signal will work on the platform and in the station, but will only extend a short way into the actual subway tunnels.

Bayne said that several years of engineering work went into the network’s initial launch that will ultimately support the entire project. Since New York City’s subway system was built a century ago, it is highly fortified with steel, which doesn’t play well with radio frequency (RF) signals. RF also doesn’t really bend around corners, which added to the complexity and scope of the system.

“Challenge number one was to get a detailed understanding, station by station, of the physical infrastructure and how to properly cover it from a wireless perspective,” Bayne recalled, adding that meeting cosmetic and safety requirements were also a big task.

San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) shut down their cellular network on Aug. 11 to pre-empt a planned protest that would have used cell phones. Will MTA have a similar ability to shut down the cellular network if it deems the situation appropriate?

Bayne said that the functionality to switch the network off is built into the system, but ultimately, it would be MTA that would make that call if such a situation arose. Uninterrupted access to 911 and the ability for 911 dispatchers to know whether a call is being placed at street level or underground is also a part of the network.

The cost of the project is estimated at up to $200 million, which is being paid for by Transit Wireless and the wireless carriers. According to a press release, MTA and Transit Wireless would evenly split revenues from occupancy fees paid by the carriers and other sub-licensees of the network.

MTA will also receive $3.3 million annually from Transit Wireless once the entire network is completed.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.