New York City’s subway tunnels, among just a handful of places in the sprawling metropolis where cellphone service remains out of reach, will be wired to connect riders traveling underground, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
The authority, which operates the city’s subway system, said it will take 10 years to complete the task because of the project’s scale. Crews will install infrastructure along 418 miles of underground track — roughly the distance from New York City to Cleveland — without additional service interruptions.
The $600 million project will be paid for and built by Transit Wireless, a New York-based communications infrastructure company, which already provides access to cellphone and Wi-Fi service in all of the city’s 281 underground subway stations. The project will also expand Wi-Fi service to all 191 aboveground stations and to 21 Staten Island Railway stations. The authority’s board approved the proposal at a meeting this week. An official agency said the project was in a design phase.
Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, a grass-roots organization of transit riders, praised the decision and said there were no downsides to making the system fully connected to cellphone networks.
“Riders are eager for more connectivity,” Mr. Pearlstein said. “Expanded cell service will make the subway feel safer and make it easier to get work done and keep in touch while on board.”
Subway passengers will be able to use their mobile devices as each section of the tunnel system is completed, although project leaders haven’t decided yet which train lines will be worked on first.
Scott Christiansen, a spokesman for Transit Wireless, said users will be able to connect to cellular data if they are signed up for service through a major cellphone network provider — such as Verizon, T-Mobile or AT&T — just like they can now when they ‘re above ground. The company said it is a neutral host network provider and does not harvest personal information from mobile devices.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is not suspending service, slowing down trains or running them on different tracks to carry out the project, authority officials said. Instead, when scheduled maintenance takes place within the system that does require a service interruption — such as track, signal or switch work — crews will install the new infrastructure.
“We think this is a great project for our customers and for the MTA,” Fredericka Cuenca, the authority’s deputy chief development officer for planning, said during the board meeting.
Transit Wireless expects to pay off the cost of the project by generating revenue through licensing fees, monetizing data analytics and leasing out fiber-optic cables for network providers, according to documents from the authority’s board. Once Transit Wireless has recovered its $600 million investment, it will share a portion of its revenue with the authority — 20 percent for six years, before steadily increasing to 40 percent beginning in the 15th year after recovery. The authority will also benefit from free Wi-Fi and dedicated access to fiber internet to support its operations.
The authority expects to receive more than $400 million in benefits — including revenue and cost savings — over the life of the agreement. The deal will allow the authority to phase out the payments it makes to Transit Wireless for services such as leased fiber, real-time train arrival information and the subway’s Help Point device system, which lets riders make 911 calls and provides them with information at dedicated locations.
Transit Wireless has been building cellphone and Wi-Fi service throughout the subway system since 2007. The deal grants the private company a 20-year contract with the authority, which can then be renewed for two additional five-year terms at the agency’s discretion.
The company set up Wi-Fi and cellphone service on the L line two years ago. The connection between Brooklyn and Manhattan on the L line became the first tunnel in the New York City subway system to provide full connectivity for AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile customers.
Several other transit systems around the world are already equipped with similar technology or are building it.
In Northern California, Bay Area Rapid Transit plans to install Wi-Fi at all 50 of its stations by 2024.
During this week’s meeting, the authority also revealed that it will face a $2.5 billion deficit in 2025 — a year sooner than it had expected — largely because ridership has plummeted during the pandemic and the federal government’s coronavirus relief aid will be used up by then.
Authority officials also moved a step closer to implementing a congestion pricing program that would toll drivers who enter Manhattan below 60th Street and use the proceeds to fund improvements to the city’s transit network. The authority has added five appointees to a panel that will recommend toll rates, credits and discounts for the program, and the agency unveiled plans to release an environmental assessment of the pricing plan next month.