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Despite Sandy, Wi-Fi and cell service still on track for subway stations

Straphangers, your days of being off the grid underground continue to fade away.

Wireless service is slowly rolling out to all 277 of the city's underground subway stations, and although the first major phase was delayed by Hurricane Sandy, officials are hopeful that the entire system will be online by 2016.

By the end of the year, 30 midtown and Upper West Side stations were slated to have Wi-Fi as well as AT&T and T-Mobile cellular service.

But Sandy pushed back that deadline to early next year, and officials said most of those stations will be online by mid-Feburary.

"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, CEO of Transit Wireless, which is installing the wireless system.

First phaseThe delayed stations include Columbus Circle, Times Square and Rockefeller Center, along with a handful of spots in midtown and the Upper West Side.

The 30 midtown and UWS stations comprise Transit Wireless' phase one, the first of seven such rollouts that are expected to be finished by 2016.

The next wave, which should be finished by December 2013 and includes 40 stations, will continue to add service in midtown. It will also expand into Queens, hitting the Main Street Station in Flushing as well as a handful of stations along the 7, E, F, M and R lines.

Wi-Fi and cell service underground launched as a pilot program in six stations in Chelsea in 2011 after years of talks. Only customers with AT&T or T-Mobile have cell service in those stations, but Bayne said Transit Wireless is in "very active and advanced discussions with Sprint."

Wi-Fi service has been free since its 2011 launch, through sponsorships from Google and then Microsoft, but the latter's deal expires at the end of the year. It's unclear if there's another sponsor, but officials said it's likely that the service will remain free.

To get the service, each station requires immense wiring, including fiber optics lines. Additionally, about six larger "base station hotels" must be constructed for every 10 to 12 miles of cable.

Subway cars?

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

The MTA declined to speculate on a time frame, but said that the current system "does not preclude" adding tunnel service someday.

Beyond 2013, the next round of stations is planned to focus on the Lower East Side and Harlem, and will include 125th Street and Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall, among others. In the following phase, the Bronx and Upper East Side will be wired, followed by midtown west and parts of Brooklyn. In the ensuing phase, service will come to the Financial District and more of Brooklyn, and the final phase will wire the rest of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan.

Some New Yorkers are pleased with the tech leap.

"Wow. The future is now. Just ordered food on @seamless app while waiting on subway platform w/ free wifi at 14th St," Jeremy MacKechnie wrote from underground.

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