Cellphone service expansion at Metro slowed by track work

An examination of the nation's second largest rail transit system comes at a time when Metro tries to weather an unprecedented season of danger and dismay.
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 2:23 PM

Metro might miss a federal deadline to offer continuous cellphone service throughout Washington's subway system unless it can hire dozens of safety escorts to accompany crews installing the equipment.

A panel of Metro's board of directors on Thursday approved the hiring of 40 employees at a three-year cost of $7.2 million. The wireless companies AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon would pay for the hires. The full board will consider the proposal at a meeting later this month.

The work has fallen behind because it competes with Metro's efforts to maintain the rail system and replace deteriorating parts. Metro protocol requires the crews to be escorted as a safety measure, and the new hires would allow more cellular company employees to help meet a 2012 deadline. About 12 to 15 escorts are currently available and can work only 24 hours of overtime a week, said Suzanne Peck, Metro's chief information officer.

The "work has ended up being very, very much more complex than the carriers anticipated. That is why they are asking for more escorts," Peck said.

Metro agreed in 2008 to expand service as part of a funding deal with Congress. Previously, a long-standing contract with Verizon had limited underground service to its customers and Sprint users (who had to pay roaming charges).

The options for riders expanded a year ago when AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile joined Verizon and launched service at 20 of the busiest underground platforms. Now the four carriers have installed antennas and other equipment in preparation to extend signals to another 20 Metro stations. The companies are also laying fiber optic cable to connect all of the underground stations to their networks. The project includes 50 stations that are

The work to expand service is also challenging because it is restricted to when trains are not operating, a window of about three to four hours per night.

It "is being balanced with necessary track work that is taking place to address [National Transportation Safety Board] safety recommendations and critical maintenance needs to keep the Metro system operating safely and in a state of good repair," Metro spokeswoman Angela Gates said in an e-mail.

Metro riders say they are eager for more coverage.

Mike Lee commutes between a corporate information technology job in Bethesda and Potomac Avenue Station, reading newspapers on his iPad during the trip. Because of the signal fluctuations, he downloads updates before leaving home or while at a station where he can connect to AT&T.

"If they expanded [service], it would make a big difference because I would have Internet access at all times," he said.

Rob Bruening, a program specialist for the Home Builders Institute, uses his AT&T phone in the stations mainly to receive e-mail.

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