#@%! It’s Cell On Wheels!

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.


Brr-rrr-ree-eee-eep! “Hello?”

And then again:

“Hello! Yeah-it’s Sue.

I’m going to be late for the jitney.”

And once more:

“Freddie! Freddie!

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

group psychology.

“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.”

Potential technology

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.

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.” #@%! It’s Cell On Wheels!