S.F. Announces Plan to Add Cell Service to Subterranean Metro Lines

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board is expected to vote to allow BART officials, on behalf of Muni, to negotiate agreements with major cellular carriers to expand cell service in the existing underground network.

by Michael Bodley, San Francisco Chronicle / September 15, 2016
An underground SF Muni car Flickr/Daniel Hoherd

(TNS) -- Right after walking through the exit turnstile at Van Ness Station, Melissa Semcer heard her cell phone buzz, finding service that was lost during her Wednesday morning trip underground in San Francisco.

“I was just on the train, texting someone who I was going to meet, and of course it didn’t go through,” said Semcer, an administrative law judge. “And then I remembered: I’m on Muni. I’m not on BART.”

But such an experience could become a thing of the past in 12 to 18 months, thanks to a plan announced Wednesday to bring cell service to most of the 5.25 miles of Muni’s subterranean routes, a breakthrough that Board of Supervisors President London Breed trumpeted as a “game-changer.”

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board is expected to vote Tuesday to allow BART officials, on behalf of Muni, to negotiate agreements with major cellular carriers to expand the existing underground network to the Muni tunnel from Embarcadero Station to West Portal Station. The new infrastructure will cost $5.9 million, which the carriers are expected to cover, and provide service to nearly 200,000 daily Muni riders, said BART Director Nick Josefowitz.

Though the BART tunnels are farther underground than Muni’s, BART riders have for years enjoyed subterranean cell service while their Muni counterparts have found their mobile phones, no matter how smart, outside the reach of cell towers.

Following the Municipal Transportation Agency’s vote, the measure will go to the Board of Supervisors for final approval. The contracts under consideration with carriers could last as long as 15 years, or be as short as five.

The plan calls for piggybacking off the existing service on BART, which in 2004 became the first transit system in the nation to offer cell service for major wireless providers. The BART network is now used by AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and Metro PCS.

There are no plans to install free Wi-Fi on Muni, which BART scrapped after a messy trial period in 2014.

Stretches of the Muni subway are notorious for delays during peak hours, including routes running in the Market Street tunnel.

Josefowitz said that in the near future, commuters stuck underground on Muni will be able to shoot their bosses a text that they’ll be late for work.

“Even though we try so hard for people to not wind up delayed, just sometimes they do,” Josefowitz said. “It’s important for them to be able to communicate that.”

Besides not costing Muni anything, the cell-service deal could end up making money for the city if the transportation agency chooses to charge operating fees to carriers, Josefowitz said.

Ed Reiskin, the agency’s director, said the cell-service initiative isn’t distracting the agency from more pressing issues, explaining that many Muni riders have asked for underground cell phone service for a long time.

“It’s not detracting from our core needs, but it’s certainly an amenity for our riders,” Reiskin said.

He also pointed out that cell service will be useful to city officials, especially when emergency personnel need to communicate deep underground in the Muni tunnels.

For now, the miles of Muni tunnels are some of the last places in San Francisco to escape people jabbering on their phones, often loudly and without much discretion. There are “certain places on Earth where you don’t want to have cell service,” Josefowitz said. But Muni, he said, isn’t one of them.

But regular Muni rider Terry McHugh, a retired San Francisco resident, disagreed.

“It’s going to be a generational answer,” McHugh said of the benefits of having underground cell service on Muni. “I don’t need my phone for the short time I’m in there. Personally, I can do without it, and I don’t need people next to me yapping, anyway. It’s just like airplanes. I would never, never want them to turn on cell service inside an airplane. Can you imagine?”

©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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