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Making New York a Smart City Through Connected Public Transport

Transit Wireless connects millions of New York City subway riders to the 5G future with an award-winning network

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If the No. 1 requirement for a smart city is good public transport, the No. 1 rider expectation is continuous connectivity. Transit Wireless' mission to keep millions of New York City subway riders connected, safe and informed is a daunting task in the best of circumstances. The recent global health crisis has made that mission even more vital.

Every day, despite the pandemic's toll on ridership, more than one million "straphangers" travel the New York City subway system. They transit seemingly endless miles of tunnels and bustle through 282 stations more than 100 feet below ground, and 109 stations above ground. Some stations, such as 42nd Avenue and Grand Central, are the size of a major airport in terms of passenger volume.

Throughout their journeys, riders can access free Wi-Fi, and can make and receive mobile calls in the underground stations, as well as in the mile-and-a-half long Canarsie Line Tunnel that runs under the East River. These connections let riders check schedules and route journeys on their smartphones. They can also summon emergency services at over 1,200 Help Points with the touch of a button.

Continuous connectivity delivers helpful information where it matters. On the platforms, riders get up-to-the-minute train arrival information through countdown clock displays connected to the network.

Scaling a network to address one of the world's largest subway systems

Connecting riders to cellphone providers, data, applications and timely information on a massive scale takes a strong partnership with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), tier-one carriers, and takes an equally massive and reliable data network. That network must work flawlessly in the harshest conditions to connect millions of phones while tying together tens-of-thousands of devices every day, around the clock.

To the riding public, this enormous network is all but invisible, delivering a free public service. For the team at Transit Wireless, ensuring the network runs flawlessly and remains invisible is all in a day's work.

"We manage a state-of-the-art network with a 160-mile fiber-optic backbone, five data centers, 5,000 Wi-Fi access points, and a distributed antenna system (DAS) with over 7,000 antennas," said Saeid Malaki, Transit Wireless director of Network and Special Projects.

The sheer size of the network makes it one of the world's largest DAS and Wi-Fi systems. What's even more remarkable is that the network was completed two years ahead of schedule.

Delivering a rider-centric network two years early

The project began in 2011 as a public-private partnership between the MTA and Transit Wireless with a simple mission — connect the millions of daily subway riders who were unconnected during their underground journeys. "From the very beginning, we designed the system with the rider at the center," said John Puskar, who heads External Affairs for Transit Wireless. "We financed, designed, built, and now operate the network at no cost to taxpayers."

Detailed and innovative engineering plans included every aspect of the passenger journey — from entering a station to exiting a train. The MTA and Transit Wireless partnered with dozens of contractors and vendors to begin the seven-year project to build, install, test and commission the network.

Four years into the project a request came from the governor's office to finish the project early. "I remember it was February of 2016," noted Malaki. "We were on schedule with the original project deadline when word came from Albany that we had to finish by the end of the year."

Transit Wireless teams took on the challenge, doubling staff, and working nights and weekends. "We had great support from our people and our partnerships with the MTA, contractors and vendors," said Malaki. "We put a lot of engineering and technical know-how into the effort, but it was the grit and perseverance of dedicated individuals working as one team that brought this project in two years early."

Connecting for the IoT future

While riders enjoy the safety and benefits of being connected today, the network was designed to meet riders needs well into the future. "We extended fiber-optic connections to the very edge of the network, into the stations, and to the antenna systems," said Malaki. "This design makes the network ready for 5G and next-generation Internet of Things (IoT) devices and applications."

IoT and 5G will usher in a future far beyond faster connections to countless smart devices. Advances in automation and data analytics will harness these technologies' power to serve both riders and transit agencies.

One example is Transit Wireless's real-time station crowding product made possible by the Wi-Fi network. Wi-Fi access points act as sensors to capture the presence of riders' smartphones, providing real-time input for station crowding analytics models that power the data feeds and deliver a score for each subway station. Application developers can use this information to tell riders whether stations are empty, busy or overcrowded.

Avoiding crowded places is vital for rider safety as transit agencies navigate the challenges of the pandemic. Information about crowding also enables operators to improve platform comfort and safety with timely interventions such as assigning relief buses to manage the overcrowding.

The potential benefits of 5G and IoT are bound only by the imagination. For example, advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics can enable timely preventative maintenance for trains, infrastructure and information systems — improving performance and rider satisfaction.

At the heart of the Wi-Fi network

The network and the services it makes possible are a big hit with the riding public. In the network's first year of operation, there were 120 million Wi-Fi logins as riders accessed social media, streaming videos and other applications throughout their journeys.

At the heart of the Wi-Fi network are Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise Ethernet switches, which move and manage hundreds of terabytes of information monthly. ALE designed the switches to withstand the extreme temperatures of underground operations and work seamlessly within the multi-vendor network.

"ALE has been a strategic partner from the very beginning of the project," said Malaki. "They share our sense of mission, and their switches work flawlessly to aggregate and backhaul enormous amounts of data to and from our data centers."

"We worked closely with Transit Wireless as one team, from design and proof of concept, to training their people on maintaining and managing the Wi-Fi network," said Steve Roos, ALE sales account director. For Saeid Malaki, the value goes beyond reliable and rugged switches. "The ALE switches ensure our network runs smoothly every day, but it is their people who bring the real value to our company and ultimately to the riders themselves," he noted.

Toward a 5G smart city future

The Transit Wireless mission to connect the unconnected has been recognized as an essential foundation for tomorrow's smart city. The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) has honored the network for "Best Wi-Fi Deployment to Connect the Unconnected in an Urban Environment." In 2018 IDC recognized Transit Wireless with its "Smart Cities North America" award for digital equity and accessibility.

Beyond the recognition, Transit Wireless remains focused on its mission and partnership with MTA to connect New York City's subway riders and continue building for the future of 5G and making New York a smart city of tomorrow. It is a mission with the rider at the center.

"At the end of the day, it is about delivering essential connectivity for riders," said Puskar. "And that has never been more important than during a global pandemic, as connectivity is the foundation for riders to feel safe and secure."