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Metro Opening D.C. Subway to Wireless Choice

Metro knocked down one of the bigger barriers to competition in the D.C. area's wireless-phone market Friday afternoon by announcing that all four nationwide wireless carriers would offer service in its subway stations and tunnels.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's press release led off with words that many Metro riders have been waiting for years to read: "Metro riders will be able to call home from any cell phone."

Today, the only signal to reach Metro's underground stretches comes from Verizon Wireless; Sprint users can roam on that signal, but AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile subscribers are out of luck. It's an awkward little detail that I've had make part of my standard guidance to people shopping for wireless-phone service.

That Friday-afternoon release went on to explain that Metro's board approved an agreement with AT&T Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon to "build a new wireless infrastructure in the underground rail system during the next four years." The first results will appear pretty soon:

Twenty of the busiest underground rail stations will have expanded cell phone service by the end of this year and the entire rail system will be equipped by 2012.

I'm pleased and amazed by the news... although I'm not exactly an unbiased observer of this situation. I take Metro to work and to many non-work occasions, and being able to use my phone at those times -- to let my wife know that I'm on my way home, to answer a quick call from the copy desk, to scan through the latest updates on Twitter or Facebook, to check my e-mail, to look up the score of the Nats game -- is a major convenience. (Those of you freaking out over the prospects of more cell phone use on Metro -- as if right now, the subway is an Amtrak Quiet Car -- should consider how many of these activities don't involve talking at all.)

So using a phone that doesn't work in the subway is a nonstarter for me. I never considered anybody but Verizon until Sprint began offering both voice and data coverage underground, and AT&T and T-Mobile never had a shot at all.

It's not that I'm looking to dump my current carrier -- I just think I'll appreciate not feeling like a captive of any one company's network.

And with that, I'd like to throw two questions out to my fellow Metro riders: What otherwise attractive carriers or phones have you set aside because they didn't work on the train? When you can use any carrier or phone underground, will you switch from your current service?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 2, 2009; 9:40 AM ET
Categories:  Pleasant surprises , Telecom  
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I won't switch but I will miss the feeling of superiority over non-Verizon subscribers when I ride the Metro.

Posted by: bokamba | March 2, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

For voice, Metro also needs to improve coverage within the rail system--the dropped signals are terrible (I use Farragut North frequently, but often wait to Metro Center, Gallery Place, or even above ground after Union Station for actual reception).

Posted by: OneSockOn | March 2, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

I'm a Verizon customer because of the Metro limitation. I don't plan on changing carriers, but this is welcome news.

Posted by: Max231 | March 2, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

I knew I was losing Metro reception when I bought my iPhone last year, but the rumors that AT&T would be coming to the system eased the pain of being off the grid underground. Can't wait for this to happen.

Posted by: CafeBeouf | March 2, 2009 8:19 PM | Report abuse

Boy, just try hearing an audio call over the noise of the rails. The rest, may be OK.

Posted by: | March 2, 2009 10:12 PM | Report abuse

No worries about the sound of the rails, callers will of course just scream into their handsets. No problem.

Posted by: robert7ii | March 3, 2009 4:33 AM | Report abuse

Great! Finally more choice, other than the overpriced,powerful Verizon crooks.

Posted by: citigreg | March 3, 2009 8:46 AM | Report abuse

SPCS deserved some kudos for being able to offer this service without the Verizon "tariffs" for the past several years.

Posted by: Rocc00 | March 3, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

I use AT&T despite the current lack of subway reception because it is the only carrier with good reception in another location where I spend a lot of time. From my standpoint this is very good news.
One of the decision factors in selecting a cell phone provider is it's geo coverage. No carrier has 100% good coverage across the country, and the more places you can get good reception from multiple carriers the better. This is also an example of what is occurring above ground. Carrier coverage continues to expand, making more cell phone alternatives more viable for more users.

Posted by: bhahn | March 3, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Being able to use my employer supplied Blackberry (T-Mobile -- their carrier, so I have no choice) sure would have been handy this morning while I waited for 45 minutes on a platform before the tenth train to come into the station arrive with enough room on it for me to board. I could have alerted my boss that I would be late and done some work via e-mail.

Posted by: DC311 | March 3, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

I've been with Verizon for years despite their significantly higher prices and the times their sales people have lied to me precisely because of this issue. I spent a lot of time on the metro and felt it was necessary to have access. Now, next time my contract is up, I can switch and get the iphone from AT&T that I have been longing for - as well as the services I can't afford from Verizon, such as internet and texting.
BTW, I hate talking on the metro and do my best not to and I will miss the silence that comes when the train goes underground.

Posted by: LiberalbelieverinrealAmericanvalues | March 3, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

I think ending the Verizon monopoly on cell coverage in the metro will help all consumers and carriers. But I think AT&T will benefit the most, because a lot of people who just could not switch to an iPhone because of their need for coverage in metro will reconsider.

Posted by: lyricist1020 | March 3, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

I'm Sprint users so this is good news that we can now pick-up on our on network, but I know there is a catch 22. I think service fees will increase. You know new changes alway require money and the money always come from the customer's pockets.

Posted by: patlr504 | March 3, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

This article is silly to me. Let me educate those who have no idea what's really going on with this telecom nonsense.

Verizon has had a choke hold on the industry for YEARS! Even when fiber optics wasn't in heavy discussion, Verizon was buying up all of the copper lines that powered pagers on the 'AD' signal which was heavily used by construction workers and the like that needed deep penetration for their devices of communication.

When cellphones became unidimensional devices, Verizon saw platinum! They bought up every ma and pa Bell phone system system they could, from satellite to copper lines.

The penetration cell phones are getting through Verizon? Is nothing more than old 'AD' penetration that pagers recieved. There is nothing special about it.

If ANY other phone company or service can NOT recieve calls underground, blame Verizon for strangling their share of the ownership and forcing people to move over to their service in order to recieve a signal on old copper wiring.

Fiber optics is not that infiltrated in the industry at this point for people to SERIOUSLY beleive they'd be recieving that same signal speed underground that they would outside. So it really doesn't matter if you get a signal or not. It's a matter if you are willing to sell your soul to a company who has it in a window already trying to make it look pretty enough for you to inhabit it...

I'm sticking with T-Mobile. Who cares about Verizon and their greedy business practices AND those who lobby for them to do their underhanded deals to keep other companies from benefiting from the same lines that get underground signals...

Posted by: cbmuzik | March 3, 2009 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Well I don't use the subway but when I do (did) it was a shame that you had to wait for a train to go to stations not underground to use, especially telling someone that you would be late or whatever. I have been with Sprint, Nextel, AT&T, Cingular and now with T-MOBILE (BEST SERVICE for the MONEY). So this is a plus for ALL USERS because Verizon should not have been able to MONOPOLIZE from the JUMP. That is why their SERVICES are over the TOP.

Posted by: dawnhughes02 | March 3, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Oh, this is so depressing. Although I have AT&T, I happily trade a lack of service for more quiet commutes. I just can't wait to listen to everyone's intelligent conversations.. "I'm the dude! In the suit! Waiving!"

Posted by: heyleah | March 3, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

I'd rather Metro try to rake in as much money as possible by making this an exclusive deal to one carrier, and then demanding that carrier also install and support WiFi access as part of the deal.

I could be wrong and Metro is making more money by charging each carrier to play. But I think they could probably charge a lot more. And yes, maybe give one of them a discount for maintaining WiFi.

Posted by: Wallenstein | March 3, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

oh pulease! They promised this ability with cell phones years ago - due out in 2008! I waited with great anticipation but 2008 came and went. Now the act as if it is a great new idea?

Posted by: OldTimeRider | March 3, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

The arrangement between Metro and Verizon is the result a contract issued by Metro several years ago to provide internal communications for Metro itself. At the time there were only two local carrier large enough to bid. They were Bell Atlantic Mobile Services (BAMS), the predecessor of Verizon, and Cellular One, one of the predecessors of Cingular. At that time, wireless service was analog. Cellular One could roam on the BAMS system using the analog backup of its TDMA system. It since changed to GSM which would not work on now Verizon's CDMA system.

Posted by: efparri2 | March 3, 2009 6:59 PM | Report abuse

50 people on a train half of them talking on the phone.

...well at least this will be a good example of why banning phone service on airplanes is a necessity. Unfortunately there will be VoIP.

Posted by: dubya19391 | March 3, 2009 7:25 PM | Report abuse

"I'm sticking with T-Mobile. Who cares about Verizon and their greedy business practices AND those who lobby for them to do their underhanded deals to keep other companies from benefiting from the same lines that get underground signals..."

um, I think that Verizon bought T-Mobile a while ago. They keep the brand name just for people like you.

Posted by: dubya19391 | March 3, 2009 7:27 PM | Report abuse

Hadn't noticed Verizon service really worked on Metro.

Posted by: pptcmember | March 3, 2009 11:34 PM | Report abuse

For the record, Verizon does not own a stake in T-Mobile. Deutsche Telecom has a stake in T-Mobile USA. Vodaphone has a stake in Verizon Wireless.

Posted by: jayridius | March 4, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Back in 2005 I switched from Sprint to Verizon, partially for the ability to make/receive calls in Metro without roaming fees. In practice, I have found that it is not a certain thing that I can place a call from a Metro train while in a station or tunnel.

Sometimes it takes a couple or more tries to place a call in the tunnels on my Verizon phone. And if there is ever a delay or big backup, then forget it. The system is so overloaded it is nearly impossible to get a line. Better off using a payphone on the platform.

As to the issue of noise: The cellphones couldn't be any louder or more irritating than the one person in the car who has his headphones on but the volume so loud that lyrics and music are easily discernable. Makes me think I should in invest in hearing aid companies for the when the teens and 20 year olds of today are 50-60 years old.


Posted by: ScottM5 | March 8, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

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