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Now boarding on Metro: wireless choice

My commute home Friday night featured something unprecedented in my 20 years of taking Metro: While waiting for the train at McPherson Square, I took out an AT&T Wireless phone -- a device that had previously been stuck offline in the subway stretches of Metro -- saw its screen display a signal, and started browsing the Web.

This iPhone 3GS didn't just have a signal, it had a surprisingly fast one. One of the first things I did was download Ookla's free program; this utility clocked the phone's download speed at 1,360 kilobits per second, as fast as many land-based broadband services. (The fact that I didn't have much competition for AT&T's signal at the time might have had something to do with this result.)

This little test represents a big deal for Metro: Until last week, only Verizon Wireless had offered coverage underground. Sprint users could roam on that, while AT&T and T-Mobile subscribers could hope to borrow a Verizon or Sprint phone from a bystander or look for a pay phone. If you, like me, commute on Metro, that drastically limited your choice of carriers -- the iPhone never had a chance at my business, for example. (The 3GS that I tested is on loan from Apple's PR department.)

Friday's launch of service from all four nationwide carriers in the 20 busiest underground stations -- repeat after me: Ballston, Bethesda, Columbia Heights, Crystal City, Dupont Circle, Farragut North, Farragut West, Federal Center SW, Foggy Bottom, Friendship Heights, Gallery Place, Judiciary Square, L'Enfant Plaza, McPherson Square, Metro Center, Pentagon, Pentagon City, Rosslyn, Smithsonian and Union Station -- marked the first step in Metro's plan to open its system to all four nationwide carriers. Metro said those companies' signals went on the air at 5:30 a.m. Friday, although some users (Dr. Gridlock writer Robert Thomson not among them) had already been able to connect on AT&T devices earlier in the week.

As my colleague Lena Sun explained in her report Friday -- and as I observed on my ride home -- this expansion covers only the platforms of those stations, and it will take more time to fill in the spaces between.

By the end of November, officials said they expect that the 20 stations will have continuous coverage from street to platform.

By next fall, the remaining 27 underground stations are supposed to be wired. But full underground service -- including in tunnels between stations -- is not expected to be available until October 2012.

Sun's story also notes that Metro will make a lot more money off this arrangement than its prior, exclusive contract with Verizon -- at least $1.67 million or so a year during the first 15 years, up from just $28,000 in 2007.

This is all good news to me. (Please, spare me complaining about people talking on their cellphones: It's a subway train, not a private limo, and if you get on Metro looking for quiet and solitude, you're doing it wrong.) This change, even in its limited state, gives many people around here more liberty to choose their wireless carrier, which can only increase competition, which is always a positive step.

Question is, will people who have stuck with Verizon or Sprint jump ship now, even if it means being offline in some stations and between all of them? If you're in that contingent, please let me know about your next move in the comments. And if you use AT&T or T-Mobile already, tell me how your reception underground has worked out so far.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  October 19, 2009; 11:24 AM ET
Categories:  Telecom  
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Competition is good - and good to get Verizon off its haunches. Still lots of gaps for Verizon data usage along Orange line between Farragut West and opening West of Ballston (funny Ballston to the opening is a dead spot). Even in a good spot, the data cannot be considered 'fast' as you report on my Centro - overly patient for Android on Verizon - it it doesn't deliver, I'm switching. But please, someone switching to AT&T?

Posted by: link390 | October 19, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

I have been using Verizon for oh so many years just because I use metro. I am planning to try AT & T now, since my organization lets me read office emails using iPhone, which is very importnat for me while I wait for the next train to arrive (which, by the way, is having some mechnical difficulties at an earlier station!!)

Posted by: ssensharma | October 19, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

I'll second link390's comment on (not) switching to AT&T--the Metro stations are probably the only place you will get a reliable data signal downtown. I've been an AT&T customer for several years and it seems to be getting more unusable for me every year (Dupont/Logan Circle area). Current Verizon commercials are poking fun at their spotty 3G coverage and it all rings true for many AT&T subscribers.

Posted by: tj722 | October 19, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

sounds great... but i still don't have service with T-Mobile or Sprint in Federal Center SW, the main station I use.

Posted by: stan9 | October 19, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

I was reading an eBook on my iPhone and saw the signal strength indicator and 3G connection notice flash on as soon as the train entered Friendship Heights on Friday. Definitely a fast signal! I needed to add cash to my SmarTrip card but wasn't sure which credit card had the least charged to it. I used my mobile banking app to check the balances as I walked to the fare machine. Sweet!

Posted by: CafeBeouf | October 19, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse


Im glad you like competition, but did you want it at the cost of Taxpayer assistance?

Keep in mind that Verizon paid for access and infrastructure in the Metro and the other companies did not.


Because Verizon is the only one with pockets deep enough to give consumers what they wanted. The other companies do nothing but lobby Congress and local municipalities to try and "Piggy-Back" onto Verizon systems for free or get Federal grants to pay for things they should already be able to afford.

I am all for competition, but only when they keep their stinky greedy hands away from the Government Trough.

Be sure to turn to your right and left and thank the people around you for helping fund your new anti-capitalistic "competition"...

Posted by: ProveMeWrong | October 19, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

One thing to keep in mind is that all 4 carriers are plugged into one system. They are all using the same DAS and antenna nodes. In layman's terms, that means that the level of coverage will be identical for all 4 carriers in these 20 stations.

So practically speaking, Nextel customers can place and receive calls at the same spots as AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon Wireless customers. If there is a deadzone inside the station – and there will be until the optimization is complete in the next few weeks -- it will impact all carriers equally. Once the optimization is complete, customers will be able to start a call at street level and continue it while on an escalator and while waiting on a platform.

Network speeds, of course, will vary, so you will still hear me and my competitors make the same speed claims we’ve always made, but no one should be making any coverage claims.

Also, you should know that Verizon is also using the new system in these 20 stations as it allows for faster data speeds than their legacy system which will remain operational until the new system is rolled out to the rest of Metro.

This new system was built jointly by the 4 carriers and Metro. It has the ability to add other carriers in the future – say Clearwire, US Cellular, Cricket, etc. should they want to pay Metro for the privilege to use it.

The remarkable thing about this new system is that it was built in less than 10 weeks – ordinarily something like this would take about a year. (It was only 10 weeks ago that the carriers had access to the stations. Even more impressive is our engineers only could work when Metro was closed -- about 4 hours a day.)

My counterparts at T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T all agree with Sprint that while this is great for our customers who use Metro, the big benefit is public safety. If you have an emergency when you are in these stations, you will be able to use your wireless phone to call 911 and Metro Police or other first responders can get to you quicker than ever before.

While we're excited about reaching this milestone, we won't stop working until the rest of the system has 100 percent coverage for our customers.

Please contact me if you have further questions.

John Taylor (
Media Relations
Sprint Nextel Corp.

Posted by: John_Taylor | October 19, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

stan9: You *should* have had Sprint service all along in L'Enfant, through roaming on Verizon's signal. Now both T-Mobile and Sprint should work on their own networks in L'Enfant. Not sure what's happening with your own phones...

ProveMeWrong: Since you asked, you're wrong. Entirely so. If you read either this post, our print story, Metro's press release or pretty much any other report about this, you'd know that the wireless carriers not only invested their own money to build this network, they're also building a second wireless network for Metro's own communications and are further paying Metro a non-trivial amount of change for the privilege of hosting equipment on Metro's property.

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | October 19, 2009 6:11 PM | Report abuse

"(Please, spare me complaining about people talking on their cellphones: It's a subway train, not a private limo, and if you get on Metro looking for quiet and solitude, you're doing it wrong.)"

What, in looking at it as a subway system, not a giant phone-booth?

Sure, tell us where you live, and let's use your neighborhood as a "neighborhood",that is, a place for everyone to hang out at all hours of the day and night and party with their stereos cranked on 11. What an idiot!

Have you stopped to think for one second what it will be like when half the people in the station, on the trains, are talking on the phone? Or do you think it will be you and just a few others having a responsible conversation?

Besides Verizon (or is it AT&T?) owns T-mobile and Sprint owns Nextel and what exactly is the "competition", especially when they are all using the same wireless link in all the stations?

Posted by: dubya1938 | October 19, 2009 9:19 PM | Report abuse

Great. Now I can hear all about the lives of the me-first passengers on other cell carriers, not just Verizon. Jeez, what in the world would did we do before cell phones? Time to invest in that black box jamming device, and watch the sheep go bananas when they can't get a precious signal.

Posted by: katty2 | October 20, 2009 6:54 AM | Report abuse

I must agree with dubya1938: Metro is a public place, and in public we are all responsible for keeping disturbances to a minimum.

Posted by: JakesFriend | October 20, 2009 8:47 AM | Report abuse


instead of telling me I am wrong because someone decided to make a press release about it....

How about YOU spend some quality time with Google and look up how much money we as taxpayers GAVE to these companies to SPEND on this through all the bailouts...

Your level of investigative journalism is pathetic at best; and you wonder why people are dropping WaPo and other Astroturf news outlets in droves

Posted by: ProveMeWrong | October 20, 2009 9:04 AM | Report abuse

JakesFriend: I can't argue with a request for manners on the train--I usually stick to texting on my phone, though that's partly because of the odds of a call dropping between stations. I just don't get the idea that Metro is some library-esque sanctum in which you would never heard the sound of human voices without the addition of cell phones.

ProveMeWrong: Perhaps you've confused AT&T with AIG? None of the carriers have taken bailout money.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | October 20, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

It seems to be becoming fashionable among the Tea Party set to claim any businesses they are angry with for some unspecified reason received bailouts from the federal government. Actually, some banks and automobile manufacturers were the recipients. I'm not sure how that can be misinterpreted as payments to AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and Tmobile.

Posted by: query0 | October 21, 2009 5:25 AM | Report abuse

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