Cell Service to Expand on Metro

By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Crews began installing equipment early Monday that will provide Verizon, Sprint Nextel, AT&T and T-Mobile service in 20 of the busiest underground stations in the Metrorail system, the transit agency announced Tuesday.

After years of complaints from frustrated riders that only Verizon had a good signal underground, many Metro users will discover that their devices work much better -- to talk, text and use the Internet -- come Oct. 16.

It is the first phase of a project that is scheduled to expand service across the system by 2012. The remaining 27 underground stations will get service by the fall of 2010, and customers will be able to use the service in tunnels between stations by October 2012, according to a timetable laid out in Metro's announcement. Above-ground stations have reliable service because special contracts between Metro and wireless carriers were not needed.

The four wireless companies, working as a consortium, will install hardware at the end of station platforms and on mezzanines at night when the stations are closed.

"This is something customers will see, but it's not going to impact [rail] service," said Metro spokeswoman Angela Gates.

Metro has had a contract with what is now Verizon since 1993. Sprint customers -- with roaming charges applying -- have been able to use the Verizon network.

Critics have said the old arrangement -- in which Verizon built a public-safety radio communication system for Metro and paid annual fees -- was not a good deal for the system.

The new 15-year contract, which can be renewed up to five times for two years each time, would generate a minimum of $52 million over 25 years, Gates said, an average of about $2.1 million a year.

The agency said other mobile carriers could bargain with Metro or the consortium to gain access to the bandwidth. If that happens, Metro said, it could make more from the deal.

To win access to the stations and tunnels, the companies agreed to build a separate wireless network for Metro to make public-safety announcements. Long-term planning calls for Metro to use that system for a Metro Channel, which could air advertisements and system updates.

The push to add cell service comes at a time when Metro management has cracked down on mobile-phone use by employees. Last month, a zero-tolerance policy went into effect that prohibits bus and train operators from using mobile devices to call or text in non-emergency situations. Operators are supposed to be terminated after the first offense.

One possible drawback of the cell network's expansion: People who enjoyed the relative quiet on trains may have to put up with a lot more riders chatting away.

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