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Wi-Fi, cell service rolled out in NYC subway stations

Free Wi-Fi service is available to subway riders

Free Wi-Fi service is available to subway riders at the Sixth Avenue L Subway station. Credit: Charles Eckert (2012)

Wi-Fi and wireless cell service is slowly rolling out to all 277 of the city's subway stations, and although the first major phase was delayed by superstorm Sandy, officials remain hopeful the entire system will be online by 2016.

By the end of this year, 30 stations in midtown were scheduled to be Wi-Fi enabled, as well as have AT&T and T-Mobile cellular service.

But Sandy pushed back that deadline to the first quarter of next year, though officials said most of those stations will be online by mid-February.

"We had to stop construction efforts pre-storm to allow for prep by the MTA, and we couldn't resume until we were granted access back down" about two weeks after the storm, said Bill Bayne, chief executive of Transit Wireless, which is installing the system.

Bayne said that the areas being worked on were mostly spared major damage by Sandy.

Many of the delayed stations are among the system's most highly traveled, including Columbus Circle, Times Square and Rockefeller Center, along with a handful of spots in midtown and the Upper West Side.

This group of stations comprise Transit Wireless's first phase of seven such rollouts that are expected to be completed over five years.

The next wave, 40 stations that should be done a year from now, will continue to add service in midtown and midtown east, and expand into Queens, hitting the Main Street-Flushing stations as well as a handful along the 7, E, F, M and R lines.

Wi-Fi and cell service first launched as a pilot program in six stations in Chelsea in 2011 after years of prolonged talks.

Only customers with either AT&T or T-Mobile have cell service, but Bayne said Transit Wireless is in "very active and advanced discussions with Sprint."

The cause of the project's sluggish pace is largely technical.

Each station requires an immense amount of wiring and cable work, including fiber optic lines that run through the tunnels, and larger, centrally located "base station hotels," which must be constructed for every 10 to 12 miles of cable to handle the traffic.

About six such base stations will be built: two in Manhattan, two in Brooklyn and one each for the other boroughs.

Wi-Fi service has been free since its 2011 launch through sponsorships from Google, and then Microsoft, but that deal expires at the end of the year.

It was unclear if another sponsor is lined up, but officials said it's likely that the service will continue to be free.

Service in subway cars, however, will have to wait. Bayne declined to say when or if service on the trains will come, and that in the end it's up to the MTA. Still, he said, "everybody is interested in that over the midterm."

MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz also declined to speculate on a time frame, but said that the current wiring system infrastructure "does not preclude" adding service in the tunnels in the future.

Beyond 2013, the next round of stations will focus on the Lower East Side and Harlem, and will include 125th Street, Second Avenue and Chambers Street/Brooklyn Bridge City Hall.



Wi-Fi for the subway


All of the city's 277 subway stations are expected to have Wi-Fi and cellular service by 2016. They will come online in seven phases. Here are the major stations and areas that will have service in the first two phases.

By March

A/C lines: 96th Street, 86th, 81st, 72nd, Columbus Circle, 50th, 42nd

E line: 50th Street, 7th Avenue, 53rd and 5th

1/2/3 lines: 86th Street, 79th, 72nd, Lincoln Center, Columbus Circle, 50th, Times Square, 28th, 23rd, 18th

N/Q/R lines: 59th Street and 5th Avenue, 57th and 7th, 49th, Times Square, 28th, 23rd

B/D lines: 96th Street, 86th, 81st, 72nd, Columbus Circle, 7th Avenue, Rockefeller Center

F line: Lexington and 63rd Street, 57th, Rockefeller Center

M line: 53rd Street and 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center

Parts of the Upper West Side and midtown west

By December 2013

Main Street Flushing

Grand Central

Herald Square

Many stations along the 7, E, F, M and R lines

Parts of midtown east

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