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Exclusive: Cell service in subway tunnels to be tested in May pilot program


amny Credit: (Nancy Borowick)

Your cellphone may get service in some subway tunnels sooner than you thought.

A pilot program to test AT&T and T-Mobile service along the A/C/E line between 14th and 23rd streets is set to start in late May, an official with Transit Wireless told amNewYork in an interview on Thursday. It aims to test methods of covering “short-run” tunnels, those shorter than half a mile.

Transit Wireless, which is also wiring the subway’s 277 underground stations, will install “very sophisticated antennas at the mouth of each tunnel,” shooting a signal into the tubes that will provide coverage, CEO Bill Bayne Jr. told amNewYork.

The test will first be private and overnight, and if it is successful, it will run live with commuter access for a “month or two to really prove the quality,” Bayne Jr. said.

“Once that’s solidified, then we’ll sit back down with MTA and they’ll decide if they want to extend the license to \[broaden the program\]. If they do, then we would try to integrate it into our standard construction," Bayne Jr. said, adding that Transit Wireless got the go-ahead for the pilot two weeks ago.

“If the technology proves itself, and the MTA wants us to do it, then I suspect it’ll be sometime over the next year," Bayne Jr. said of potential plans to expand the pilot.

It’s unclear if Wi-Fi will be part of the pilot.

The new antennas, called directional end-fire antennas, will connect with the equipment already being installed in subway stations, and it will tie into the existing network of coverage.

However, the pilot is only the first step to any potential addition of cellphone coverage to tunnels, and it has many hurdles to success.

Most importantly, the new system must not interfere with any of the subway’s existing operations and modes of communications. It must be robust enough to withstand the rough conditions inside tunnels, and it must meet the requirements of the wireless carriers, Bayne Jr. said. And even if the technology checks out, the MTA may simply decide not to move forward with expanding it.

Still, having cellphone service in the tunnels has long been a dream of straphangers, and this pilot is among the most substantial steps to bring that dream to reality.

“If that works, it could be an elegant solution to cover the trains,” Bayne Jr. said.

Verizon and the MTA declined to comment. Sprint didn’t return a request for comment by press time.

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