NYC Launches Subway Cell Phone Service

New York City officially launches underground cell phone service at six subway stations in Manhattan Tuesday. Some New Yorkers hail the inexorable march of progress, while others lament the intrusion of annoying ringtones and banal conversation into yet another urban space.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: In New York City, cell phone service is finally going underground. Transit officials today launched wireless service at six subway stations in Manhattan. Many New Yorkers welcomed the long-delayed project as a step forward. But as NPR's Joel Rose reports, others aren't so sure.

JOEL ROSE: There were already a few spots above ground where subway riders could catch a decent wireless signal, including the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. But the underground station at 8th Avenue and 14th Street, in Chelsea, was not one of them, so the new service today left many riders there pleasantly surprised.

FRANKLIN GREENAWAY: Definitely, it's a good idea. A matter of fact, it's not a good idea; that's an understatement. It's a great idea. I'm a Facebook junkie. I'm a YouTube junkie. I need to have coverage everywhere I go.

TAMMY RAMSEY: It's highly convenient because I'm running late for an appointment, so I was able to call them and let them know that I might be a little bit late because the train seems to not be coming.

MAX GOLOTA: It's perfect, the signal, yeah. That's great. It's progress. It's the future.

ROSE: Franklin Greenaway(ph), Tammy Ramsey(ph) and Max Golota(ph) are waiting on the uptown A-C-E platform. Elsewhere in the station, transit officials were holding a press conference to announce the new wireless service in six subway stations. Carmen Bianco is a senior vice president at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway.

CARMEN BIANCO: Our customers are now - they have one more opportunity, using technology, to stay in touch.

ROSE: That is only if they're also customers of AT&T or T-Mobile. So far, they're the only wireless companies to sign on with the new underground network, a project expected to cost up to $200 million. Bianco and other officials also stressed the safety advantages of having wireless service on subway platforms. William Bayne is the CEO of Transit Wireless, the company that's building the underground network.

WILLIAM BAYNE: The NYPD's view, as is our view, is that it actually enhances security capability by connecting people. They're aware. They see something. They say something. Right now, there's no way to communicate outside the underground. So, you know, the view is that this enhances security.

ROSE: But not everyone is excited about the new service. Daniel Moreno(ph) says the subway system is one of the last places in the city you can escape from the constant barrage of emails and text messages and other people's cell phone conversations.

DANIEL MORENO: It's totally annoying. Yes. Absolutely. It's bad enough. Like, no one has decorum about talking on the phone walking down the stairs. You know, wait 'til you get to work.

ROSE: Even Andrew Albert, chair of the New York City Transit Riders Council, concedes that underground cell phone service is a mixed blessing. On the plus side, Albert says, it will let riders get real-time updates from the MTA about train service without having to leave the station. But Albert can see the argument against it, too.

ANDREW ALBERT: The subway was sort of your last refuge from the idle chatter of, did you see what so-and-so was wearing? and what did they serve? and, you know, dear, I'll be home soon - and all of that kind of stuff. Of course, you still have the option to keep your phone off, right? You don't have to turn it on.

ROSE: Yeah, right. MTA officials plan to expand wireless service to another 30 stations in Manhattan within a year. They hope to have wireless access in all 277 stations by 2015. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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