It’s 5:19 p.m. on a hotter-than-hell Friday in July. You’re
on the No. 4 train, somewhere between Union Square and Grand Central. A droplet
of sweat dribbles down your brow to the tip of your nose. You’d wipe it away,
if only your elbows weren’t pinned to your sides by the crush of humanity. The
guy next to you smells like he’s been rolling around in a Dumpster. Tinny
strains of Kid Rock blast from a nearby teen’s headphones. Someone has the nerve
to begin eating a burrito….
And then you hear it.
And then again:
“Hello! Yeah-it’s Sue.
I’m going to be late for the jitney.”
And once more:
Freddie, put your mudda on the phone!”
Avert your ears. The cellular phone, the unavoidable pest of
the Manhattan populace-the bane of your sidewalks, your restaurants, your movie
theaters-is coming to the New York City subway system. Maybe not tomorrow,
maybe not this year, but it’s coming.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has begun
negotiating with companies that want to wire portions of the 656-mile subway
system for cell-phone use, executives at several wireless-phone companies said.
Though the M.T.A., as recently as this week, tried to downplay the
cell-phones-in-the-subway speculation in the New York Daily New s and other media outlets, representatives of several
major communications companies said that behind the scenes, the authority is
busily preparing for a wireless transformation.
“We are actively negotiating with them,” said Kathleen
Dunleavy, spokeswoman for Sprint PCS.
“We have had exploratory conversations with a number of
interested parties who discussed a conceptual idea,” acknowledged M.T.A.
spokesman Tom Kelly, adding that there were not yet any “concrete” proposals.
The carriers would spend millions of dollars of their own
money building the system, and would also pay the M.T.A. yearly rent, or a cut
of their profits, for the privilege. In return, the cell-phone companies would
get access to a (literally) captive population-and the last New York refuge
from the noisy wireless era.
“It’s really just a matter of time,” said Richard Wolf,
business-development director for Englewood, N.J.–based Aerocomm Inc.
A cell-phone invasion on the New York City subway system is
certain to trigger intense animosity between cell-phone users and the people
who hate them. When San Francisco put technology in its trains to make
cell-phone conversations possible, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system was
deluged with angry e-mail. Here in the city, the Long Island Rail Road has
already been made miserable by cell-phone use, and loud yakking has provoked
major fights on Metro North.
“We’ve already had physical confrontations between riders,”
said Mike Doyle, associate director of the New York City Transit Riders’
Council. “This could turn into a public-relations nightmare. You know, we’re
New Yorkers. We’ve got big mouths, and we will punch each other.” City
Councilman Philip Reed, who has proposed a bill to ban cell-phone conversation
on all public transportation in the city, said that wiring subways for cell
phones would provoke a “revolution” of angry riders.
But others applaud the wiring of the subways. Take Andrew
Rasiej, an Internet entrepreneur and political activist. Like many in Silicon
Alley, Mr. Rasiej has long chafed at losing touch when he goes underground.
“It’s about time. What the hell took them so long?” Mr.
Rasiej said of the subway cell-phone plan. “The fact that it’s still a long way
from being a reality is a complete joke, and embarrassing.”
Mr. Rasiej has a point. There is something distinctly Andy Rooney–esque about the garden-variety
anti-cell-phone plaint. It’s 2001, folks-the war is over, and you’ve lost.
Wireless phones are here to stay.
Cell phones have indisputably made life in New York City
more convenient and safer. (We’re talking pedestrians here; highways are
another matter.) Boston decided to wire its subway system to make riders feel
more secure, said Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay
Transportation Authority. “If someone’s not comfortable being out late at
night, traveling alone, and they have a cell phone, they’ll know they can use
it,” he said.
In Washington, where Verizon Wireless already offers
coverage on the Metro, phone calls from riders stuck on a train helped the Fire
Department quickly respond to a potentially deadly tunnel fire last April. By
contrast, in December 1990, a minor fire killed a passenger on the No. 3 train
within 50 yards of Brooklyn’s Clark Street subway station. Police said poor
communications among rescuers underground hampered their efforts. (The M.T.A.
has since improved its emergency communications system, installing fiber-optic
lines throughout the system.)
But even without these
safety considerations, Mr. Rasiej chafed at the talk about cell-phone bans.
“There’s a First Amendment issue here, too,” he said. “I’m allowed to talk to
you in person, but I’m not allowed to talk on a cell phone? That kind of seems
a little odd.”
Besides, who’s kidding
whom? Riding a New York City subway isn’t exactly the kind of serene, intimate
experience that would be destroyed by cell-phone chatter. Can Mr. Rasiej’s
conversation on his Motorola StarTAC really be any more annoying than the guy
playing his Casio synthesizer? Or the woman rattling noisemakers and selling
dead batteries? If you’re used to traveling 30 minutes stuffed like a tuna
steak against your foul-breathed cohabitants, are you really going to lose it
about a … cell phone?
No doubt, cell phones on the subways represent the city’s
wireless Rubicon. Here in New York, there are
regular and legitimate skirmishes over space and etiquette. Some bookstores
and restaurants have posted signs banning cell phones, and Amtrak has added “quiet”
cars to its New York–to-Washington Metroliner where conversations are
Why is it that cell phones prompt such visceral revulsion in
some? James Katz, a professor of communications at Rutgers University and the
author of Connections: Social and
Cultural Studies of the Telephone in American Life , said it’s all about
“People don’t like being around half of a conversation,” Mr.
Katz said. “They feel that, in some sense, the person on the cell phone is
deserting the present situation. It’s a funny kind of absent presence. People
are social animals, and if someone’s not there and yet intruding on the
situation through conversation, it’s annoying.
“This,” Mr. Katz said,
referring to New York’s subway plan, “goes a step further.” Even under the best
circumstances, he said, people will have to talk loud to make themselves heard
on the subway. At the same time, subway riders are already suffering constant
invasions of personal space.
Then there’s the substance of the conversations themselves.
“I think what most people call to my attention is the incessant need to be in
touch [and] how irritating that is to other people: ‘Well, we went by the 55th
Street station, and I’ll be there in 15 minutes…'” Mr. Katz said.
Or as the Straphangers Campaign’s Gene Russianoff put it:
“The things people are willing to discuss on those phones are things you’d
rather they keep private …. Hearing someone berate their lover or order their
business partner around-it’s like being in some dysfunctional family dinner.”
Plus, he added, “they often shout into the things like
they’re talking to Alexander Graham Bell.”
But the ball keeps moving. As wireless technology advances,
the list of subway systems making deals with wireless carriers is lengthening:
Washington’s Metro in 1993, San Francisco’s BART in 1999, Boston’s T and Los
Angeles’ Red Line within the last year.
We know: Los Angeles
has a subway ? More surprising, though, is that the city’s gleaming-new and
barely used system was built without cell-phone coverage in the first place. In
California’s freeway culture, a cell phone is less a technological appliance
than a psychological necessity, a portal to the world of human interaction
outside your car.
New Yorkers, who spend their commutes trying to interact as
little as possible with the hordes of people pressed against them, would seem
less needy. We stoically contend with calls lost underground and signals fading
within tall buildings. Like long lines at movies, sleazy real estate agents and
scary-looking produce, we count such annoyances as signifiers of the
cosmopolitan life. Freeway culture’s equivalent inconvenience-“I’m heading into
a tunnel”-just sounds like an excuse to get you off the phone.
In fact, it may well be. As wireless companies aim to turn
the country into one seamless network, tunnels, buildings and other
hard-to-reach places are increasingly being wired.
In the beginning, cell phones were called “car phones,” and
the first generation of cellular-phone companies mainly concentrated on covering
the nation’s roads. It took years of angry town-board meetings and assurances
to dubious crowds that the unsightly towers did not emit cancer-causing
electromagnetic radiation, but the job is mostly done.
Now the dead spots are under siege. Skyscrapers are
outfitted with special in-building systems. You can already make calls in the
Holland and Lincoln tunnels-wired in a special deal with AT&T-and the
Queens-Midtown and Brooklyn Battery tunnels, outfitted by Verizon Wireless (the
former Bell Atlantic). The Metro North is covered all the way to Grand Central
Station. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has a $12 million deal
with a company, New York Telecom Partners, to wire the Port Authority Bus
Terminal, the World Trade Center, Newark, LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy
International airports and the PATH trains.
All of these deals are similarly structured: The private
company builds the system and pays rent, or a portion of the tolls it charges,
to the governmental agency. Sometimes the arrangement allows a single carrier
exclusive rights, which permits the carrier to then tout its superior coverage
to consumers. More often, the company that builds the system opens it to other
carriers and charges them for using it.
Extending coverage underground has been enormously
expensive, which has slowed the process of expansion to the subways. “Every
city has a little bit different model,” said Mr. Wolf of Aerocomm, which
services Verizon’s technology on the Queens-Midtown and Brooklyn Battery
It’s something of an entrepreneurial gamble. Not all
carriers are convinced that consumers will use their phones enough underground
to justify the enormous expense. Subway cell-phone technology is also a
lightning rod for bad P.R. The Boston
Globe ‘s editorial page has already attacked the idea of extending coverage
to that city’s subways. (At the same time, Verizon was assailed for not
providing enough coverage, when The Washington
Times accused the company of “red-lining” stations in poor neighborhoods.)
But make no mistake: There is no shortage of companies
interested in doing the work. Boston put out its request for proposals last
week and, within two days, had already sent out 29 copies of the bid
specifications, Mr. Pesaturo said.
Of course, New York’s subway system, with its 600-plus miles
of track, 137 miles of tunnel and 468 stations, dwarfs all the other systems in
the country. (Only 20 miles of Boston’s system are underground.) There have
been halting attempts to wire the system in the past-the M.T.A. tried to gauge
interest in the idea a few years ago, said Mr. Kelly, the spokesman, and found
little. “People have talked about putting antennas on trains, putting antennas
on stations,” he said. “When they get to the practical side of it, the
complexity of it all seems to be too much.” But in recent years the technology
has advanced so much that the project appears not only feasible, but imminent.
For some time, the M.T.A. kept its feet firmly in the 20th
century. In August, Mr. Kelly told the Los
Angeles Times that it would be impossible to ever extend cell-phone
coverage to the New York subway. “It’s too crowded,” he said. As recently as
March 12, another M.T.A. spokesman told the Daily
News Express that it would take a “monumental” effort to wire the system.
But behind closed doors, the discussion of cell phones at
the M.T.A. is very much alive, and the agency has slowly begun to soften its
public stance. “Nobody has given us a concrete proposal yet,” Mr. Kelly told The Observer .
“Obviously, we would look at it if such a proposal is made.”
bidders, however, said that talks with the M.T.A. over cell-phone use are
progressing quickly. In recent months, several companies have met with transit
authority officials to discuss logistics.
“We’re working on that right now,” said John Battaglia, vice
president of operations for Nextel. “This is something that’s pretty far
“There have been a few meetings,” said Mr. Wolf of Aerocomm.
“I know we have discussed this with them in some meetings, just to get a feel
for the technology and how to put it together.”
Wiring the whole system would certainly be technically
feasible, subway cell-phone proponents said. “Leaky” cable-fiber-optic lines
that throw off electromagnetic radiation-could be run through the tunnels. In
fact, the existing fiber-optic lines laid in the early 1990’s after the Clark
Street fire could be adapted for that use, several executives said. At the same
time, small antennas-known as “microcells”-could be placed in stations or at
intervals along the tunnels. Mr. Wolf said his company was developing an
antenna that is flat and looks like a ceiling tile.
Mr. Wolf estimated that right now, it might cost between $50
million and $100 million to wire the entire system. “But I think that number
comes down as more and more technology is created,” he said. Compare that to
the projected cost of the long-awaited Second Avenue subway: $10 billion.
Still, several carriers, including AT&T Wireless and
Verizon Wireless, were less interested, wary of the potential cost of the
subway technology; several executives said it would be too expensive for one
company to take on.
“The capital markets are getting clobbered,” said Richard
DiGeronimo of New York Telecom Partners. “I just don’t think the market at this
point would support that kind of capital outlay.” The answer, Mr. Battaglia
said, might be to do the project in stages: first the busiest stations, like
Times Square, Herald Square and Fulton Street; then the rest of the stations;
and finally the subway tunnels.
Several other executives said there was talk of a consortium
of carriers that would split the cost. Or, they suggested, a specialized
company might install the infrastructure -and then charge phone companies a fee
for using it. Mr. Wolf said that is the option the M.T.A. is leaning toward.
“They are looking for some kind of third party that could be
a go-between [among] the carriers and put this all together,” he said.
None of the executives would hazard a guess as to how much
money the M.T.A. might hope to make off a deal. The Washington Times reported that Verizon’s exclusive contract
with the 97-mile Metro system pays the city 20 percent of charges for calls
placed within the system, estimated at the time the contract was signed at
$360,000 a year.
The M.T.A. official coordinating the negotiations, Claretha
Fennick, declined to be interviewed for this story, redirecting a reporter to
Mr. Kelly said that whatever happens, phone callers, not
taxpayers, will pick up the tab. “It would be private,” he said of the funding.
Meanwhile, riders wait. Mr. Rasiej, who lives in Union
Square, walks to work and takes the subway most everywhere else, wondered why
the M.T.A. declined to follow the lead of the suburban rail lines. “Why did
they put it in the tunnels up to Westchester first?” he asked. Mr. Rasiej also
contended that expanding coverage will make the subways safer. “How often do
you go to a platform and look for a phone that works?” he asked.
But Mr. Reed, the city
councilman, saw the prospect differently. “Can you imagine [a train] trapped in
the subway, and 100 people pulling out their cell phones?” he said. “It would
drive anybody out of their mind.”
Mr. Reed, who is from Harlem, doesn’t own a car and often
gets around town by bike. He proposed his bill, he said, after hearing one too
many loud one-way conversations on the bus. He says people have come up to him
and thanked him. The bill hasn’t gone anywhere, though-and Mr. Reed figures
that Silicon Alley executives like Mr. Rasiej may have more than enough pull to
complete the wiring of New York.
“Who’s to say all those
young people know what’s right?” he warned. “Look at what happened in Silicon
Alley-it went bust.”