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 Speedtest.net 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.
October 19, 2009; 11:24 AM ET
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