System Would Allow Use of All Cellphones

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008

Metro is taking the first step toward building a new wireless system that would let all riders talk on their cellphones while riding the subway after years of customer complaints that only Verizon users can get reception underground.

Metro officials are seeking preliminary approval today from a board committee to solicit proposals from firms to design, build and operate a wireless network that would provide riders with cellphone and broadband services in all 47 underground stations and 50 miles of tunnels, and allow the transit agency's police and rail personnel to communicate.

The network also would also support Metro's plan, announced last month, to provide real-time information and advertising on flat-panel monitors in rail cars, train stations and buses.

"When this comprehensive system is in place, any cellphone can be used aboveground and in the tunnels, and this network can be used by all our operational employees as well," said Suzanne Peck, Metro's information technology chief.

But it would be several years before everyone could phone home.

If the full Metro board approves the plan later this month, officials want to request proposals in April and award a contract in the fall. The winning bidder would be required to build a wireless network at no cost to Metro and guarantee the agency a minimum amount of revenue each year. It would take 18 months to four years after the contract is awarded before such a system would be in place, Peck said.

The reason has to do with the relatively small window when work can take place in tunnels. Much of the maintenance and repair of Metro's aging infrastructure occurs after the rail system is closed, when trains are not running. Installing a new wireless network, including cable installation in tunnels, would have to occur then.

Priority would be given to wiring the underground stations that have the highest usage, mostly in the downtown core, Peck said.

Members of Congress have sought to increase service for other cellphone carriers in at least the 20 busiest stations as part of talks about more federal funding for Metro.

In 1993, Metro agreed to allow Bell Atlantic Mobile Systems, which later became Verizon Wireless, to build and own the system now in use. In exchange, Verizon has been paying the transit agency annual usage fees. Verizon also invested $7.6 million in building a public safety radio communications system for Metro. But the wireless system is compatible only with Verizon cellphones and Sprint phones that roam onto the network, Metro officials said. T-Mobile and AT&T phones do not have access, not even to call 911.

Metro also has been criticized for failing to match other transit agencies in generating a potentially lucrative source of revenue for the cash-strapped authority. Metro received $46,000 in revenue from Verizon in 2005, $33,000 in 2006 and $28,000 in 2007, Peck said. Verizon told Metro the declining revenue was based on lower use, she said.

By comparison, Boston transit officials agreed to a deal in 2005 with a company to wire four downtown stations and tunnels that guarantees at least $4 million over 15 years. In fiscal 2007, the first year it received use fees, Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority received $200,000, agency spokesman Joe Pesaturo said.

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