'I M ON THE T': Tunnels ready for cellphones

Email|Print| Text size + By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / December 27, 2007

Passengers riding the T in tunnels underneath downtown Boston will now be able to chat on their cellphones, text-message their friends, or use hand-held devices to e-mail their bosses from platforms and underground tunnels in and around four of the MBTA's busiest stations.

Yesterday, AT&T became the third cellphone provider to offer a signal underground. T-Mobile and Verizon both connected their networks earlier this month, but without any announcement from the T, many customers were not aware they could use their phones.

The service is currently being offered in Downtown Crossing, Government Center, State, and Park Street stations, and all the tunnels in between. Expansion to other stations and tunnels is expected as cellphone service providers see demand and are willing to pay for the connection.

Most riders interviewed yesterday said they appreciate the freedom to use their phones. But some also said they regretted losing one of the last places in Boston where people can both get a break from their phones and not be subjected to the noise and unwanted intrusion of others' conversations.

"I'm glad it's happening," said Samuel Kelley, 20, a college student. But "it's kind of a nuisance to be next to the person who's blabbing away, trying to overpower the sound of the trains."

The MBTA acknowledges the potential for annoyance from loud talkers and is rolling out a campaign designed to encourage passengers to keep conversations brief and quiet.

Ads will be placed in train cars with the message: "Peace and quiet. It has a nice ring to it."

Robert Karash, 58, a semiretired professor, said cellphone chatter on the buses he rides has become prevalent, but he has learned to cope.

"The key is, people have to Zen out and not really listen," he said.

The nation's subways have been slow to introduce cellphone service, in large part because carriers have not wanted to spend the money to wire tunnels. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has tried to get cellphone service into the system for most of this decade; an earlier deal fell through when companies balked at the high cost of wiring the entire T.

T-Mobile built its own limited network, available on a handful of platforms, in 2003, but its customers could not get a signal in the tunnels.

Two years later, the T contracted with InSite Wireless, which installs the wiring and antennas necessary to provide cell service. InSite is paying the MBTA at least $4 million over 15 years for the right to charge cellphone carriers for use of the system it built. When service expands - probably first to South Station, North Station, and other busy stations - the fees paid by InSite to the T will rise.

"These are very complex projects that kind of fall outside the traditional infrastructure agreement that carriers get into, say, on a tower or a rooftop," said Christopher J. Davis, president of InSite Wireless.

InSite had been expected to wire the first four stations two years ago, but Davis said that negotiating deals with cell providers delayed the launch. He expects more cell companies will sign deals next year, now that three major competitors have committed.

Because InSite has built an equipment room and installed 89 small antennas for the first four stations, it should be technologically easier to expand, Davis said. New locations depend on collecting money from cell companies, so the order of expansion will be driven by demand, he and MBTA General Manager Daniel A. Grabauskas said.

"The goal of all parties is to build out the entire system," Davis said. He declined to provide a timetable.

Grabauskas and cell company managers say text messaging and e-mailing from handheld devices may prove more popular than trying to talk on a noisy train.

"The whole data side is really where the growth of the industry is now," said Michael Murphy, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless.

Grabauskas believes most riders will embrace cellphone service as a convenience for getting work done and keeping appointments, as well as a way to report suspicious behavior. He also hopes to give commuters another reason to ditch their cars.

"It's a competitive advantage. People can let somebody else do some driving while you're able to do some work," he said.

Cell service on other subways is at various stages of development. Passengers who ride the MARTA in Atlanta have no cell service underground. On the Metro in Washington, Verizon customers have had cell access for more than a decade, but customers of other companies get no signal.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit added service in some San Francisco tunnels and on platforms a year ago and is expanding to other parts of the system over the next two years.

New York City Transit signed a deal this fall with an outside contractor to equip all platforms in the city with cellphone and wireless Internet service. But officials there decided not to include service in the tunnels because installation of cell equipment would disrupt too many trains, said Paul Fleuranges, a spokesman for the transit agency.

"The subway was never really built for a lot of modern technology that we're overlaying," Fleuranges said.

Globe correspondent Daniel M. Peleschuk contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at

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