20 Metro Stations Expand Cellphone Coverage on Platforms

Metro Center is among the 20 stations that will have expanded cellphone service on the platforms for subscribers to T-Mobile, Sprint-Nextel and AT& T.
Metro Center is among the 20 stations that will have expanded cellphone service on the platforms for subscribers to T-Mobile, Sprint-Nextel and AT& T. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009

By midnight Friday, the long-awaited expansion of cellphone service at Metro stations will mean riders who use the three other nationwide carriers will join Verizon users in having service at 20 of the busiest underground platforms, officials said Thursday.

Riders who use AT&T, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile will be able to make calls, send text messages or surf the Web from those 20 station platforms. Officials cautioned Thursday that initial service will be available only when riders are on the platforms. They will lose it once they step on a train and move into the tunnels.

Eventually, service will expand to anywhere inside the station. By the end of November, officials said they expect that the 20 stations will have continuous coverage from street to platform.

By next fall, the remaining 27 underground stations are supposed to be wired. But full underground service -- including in tunnels between stations -- is not expected to be available until October 2012.

Some non-Verizon customers have been getting a signal this week because carriers have been testing the network, company officials said.

The first phase of the project was completed by the four nationwide carriers, which have been working as a consortium since May to install hardware at the end of station platforms and on mezzanines. Cables and antennae were also installed late at night when the rail system was closed.

Until now, only riders with Verizon service and Sprint customers -- with roaming charges applying -- have had underground service on a wireless network as part of Metro's contract with Verizon since 1993.

The transit agency is required to expand the service as part of an agreement with Congress over additional federal funding for Metro.

Verizon Wireless users who might be concerned that expanded service for others will negatively affect them do not have to worry.

"You will not lose anything you have today," said Richard Dolson, Verizon's executive director for network in the Maryland, D.C. and Virginia region. Verizon customers who use data will see faster e-mail downloads at those 20 station platforms, Dolson said.

Sprint customers no longer have to roam at those 20 stations, said Suzanne Peck, Metro's chief information officer.

Non-Verizon customers should expect spotty reception at the start, until multiple antennas are installed for continuous coverage. Customers who get a call on the street might lose reception riding down an escalator, said Sprint spokesman John Taylor. But once they reach the platform, they will be able to make or receive calls, he said.

Similarly, at major transfer stations such as Metro Center, riders might lose signal when they move from the upper level Red Line platform to the lower level Blue and Orange line platform, he said.

Metro's contract with the team of carriers would generate a minimum of about $25 million during the initial 15-year term and an additional $27 million during five, two-year renewal terms, for a minimum of $52 million over 25 years, officials have said.

Metro has been criticized in the past for failing to make more revenue from its wireless contract. Under Metro's previous agreement with the company that became Verizon Wireless, Verizon was allowed to build and own the previous network, invest $7.6 million in building a public safety radio communication system for Metro and pay Metro annual usage fees. Metro received $46,000 in revenue from Verizon in 2005, $33,000 in 2006 and $28,000 in 2007, Metro officials have said.

Under the new contract, the four carriers own and are responsible for operating and maintaining the network. As part of the agreement with Metro, they will build a second wireless network, which Metro will own, operate and maintain for the agency's public safety and operational communications.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company