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Inside A Secret Basement Powering The New York Subway’s Pioneering Wireless Network

By 2018, every underground subway station in New York with have cellular service and Wi-Fi. The gear in this secret basement will keep riders connected.

For a moment, it feels like I’m being lured into a trap. Normally, when I arrive to meet somebody for an interview, I’m not required to weave through a maze of parked vans behind a nondescript building in an unfamiliar part of Queens. But today is different. I’ve been asked to keep the location of the interview secret, and for good reason.

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Upon entering the building, I’m surrounded by rows of routers, wireless connectivity equipment, and fiber-optic cables. The room has a low hum and the feel of a mini data center, but it’s not storing bits. Instead, this secluded basement is pushing mobile broadband and Wi-Fi service to 30 different subway stations throughout Queens. Currently 84 stations across the subway system has at least a Wi-Fi hotspot; within three years, my guide reports, every underground subway station in New York City will have cell and Wi-Fi signals powered by one of these base stations.

This is one of five such rooms maintained by Transit Wireless, the New York-based company formed to provide the Big Apple’s long overdue underground Internet access. The firm is a subsidiary of Australian telecom Broadcast Australia, which won a contract with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in 2007 to design and build out the underground networks for all four major carriers and maintain the infrastructure for 25 years. They’re also building their own fiber-optic Wi-Fi network, which will be available to subway riders for free, provided they don’t mind seeing a few banner ads when they login. In April, the company reported 3.3 million Wi-Fi logins, a record number for its network.

As you might imagine, outfitting a crowded, century-old underground transit system with the latest wireless technology is no simple feat.

“These subways were built 100 years ago, so they’re not the nicest environments to be putting infrastructure in,” says Nathan Cornish, director of RF Engineering for Transit Wireless. “A big part of it is finding out where we can mount equipment and where we can run equipment.”

The contractors installing this technology have to account for things like extreme temperatures, potential water damage, metal dust from the train brakes, and the safety of passengers–not to mention the challenge of weaving their work around trains that almost never stop running. Because of the environmental factors like weather and metal dust, everything Transit Wireless installs in the stations needs to be sealed shut. It’s also why most of the hardware needs to be housed in climate-controlled rooms like the one Cornish is showing me.

One of Transit Wireless’s cable hotels Photo: John Paul Titlow

The Transit Wireless base station hotel in Queens is divided into four main sections, each one containing networking hardware belonging to Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. A fifth section of the room has stacks that each carrier has loaded this room with, equipment supporting their current networks: 3G, 4G, and LTE. Some carriers are already installing equipment to support the next generation of networks, so when LTE goes out of style, subway riders won’t be left behind.

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Building out complex underground infrastructure requires taking a long-term view. “We have to future proof as much as we see today,” says Cornish. “Otherwise we would be constantly taking down the network and spending more money on it. Our system is flexible enough to add and expand. We’ve built some additional capacity in there so that we can do that sort of thing.”

Distributing Signal Everywhere Underground (Almost)

Each carrier’s base station generates a radio signal, which is then converted into optical signals and then, alongside Transit Wireless’s own Wi-Fi network, is fed up under the city streets through ducts containing fiber-optic cables. These cables snake throughout the city, connecting the base station hotels to each subway station, where the signals are converted to RF and wirelessly beamed across the platforms from an array of strategically placed antennae. For riders, all of that invisible complexity manifests itself as something they’ve been yearning for: a couple bars of cellular service. Or at the very least, a free Wi-Fi signal.

Another advantage of distributing the network infrastructure into rooms like this one is simplicity. When there are issues, technicians from the carriers can just go to one of five locations to troubleshoot them, rather than dealing with the chaos of navigating dozens of overcrowded subway platforms spread out across the city.

How wireless and phone service is distributed across the underground network.Transit Wireless

By splitting the infrastructure into five secret locations, Transit Wireless reduces the chance of a bad actor (be it Mother Nature or someone else) taking out the whole system at once. That’s important because these networks won’t just be used to Instagram selfies from the platforms and read the news; they’ll let people call 911 and communicate in emergency situations.

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The system isn’t without its drawbacks, however. Due to the logistical problems with installing hardware underground, Transit Wireless won’t be installing access points in the subway tunnels initially. Not surprisingly, safely setting up these networks in the tunnels would require the MTA to periodically halt train traffic, which unlike most other underground systems, runs nearly continuously. As badly as smartphone-addicted commuters want to tweet, text, and Tinder from the train, Transit Wireless and the MTA determined that those luxuries didn’t yet justify major disruptions in subway service and the associated costs.

As a result, commuters may see signals come and go between stations, depending on how far apart the stations are. It might not matter if you’re reading a lengthy news article or looking at cached transit directions. But streaming songs or watching videos could quickly get annoying. Then again, once service becomes continuous, the prospect of subway cars filling up with telephone conversations will likely bring its own annoyances.

Demographics of subway wireless usage, between January and March 2015Transit Wireless

Cornish says Transit Wireless is determined to work out a way to build service into the tunnels once the stations are fully connected. “It’s a very costly and timely process,” he says. “But it will happen.” In the meantime, they’re experimenting with ways to beam signals down the tracks as far as they can, and are considering building Wi-Fi service directly into train cars.

The $200 million project is contractually slated to be finished by 2018, although Cornish is confident that they can beat that deadline and get everything up and running by 2017. That cost, which is privately funded by Transit Wireless, is offset in part by fees paid by the carriers to be a part of the program (and to house their equipment in the network’s base station hotels). Additional revenue comes from advertisers who will pay to run display ads on the sign-in screen for the subway Wi-Fi, in the hopes of attracting the eyeballs of some of the system’s 5.5 million daily riders.

The New York City Subway, which opened in 1904, isn’t the nation’s only underground system with cellular and Wi-Fi service. Other systems with full or partial connectivity include BART in the Bay area, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia. Officials in Chicago say that an ongoing upgrade of its subway wireless system to 4G networks would make it the largest U.S. public transit system with 4G coverage in all subway stations and tunnels, a competitive advantage that could attract new business.

As of today, about 120 of 279 stations in New York City are completed, including older and logistically tricky spots like 14th Street station and Grand Central. Brooklyn will comprise the final phase of the build-out, in part because of the underground depth of some of the stations and how far apart many of them are. Most recently, the massive Fulton Center in downtown Manhattan was added to the list of connected stations. But just because Transit Wireless has done its part doesn’t mean all riders will see cellular signals yet, since the carriers are rolling out their networks independently. For now, the only thing Transit Wireless can guarantee when a given station is completed is the availability of Wi-Fi on the subway platforms.

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In other places underground, Instagram-addicted New Yorkers will have to just wait.

About the author

John Paul Titlow is a writer at Fast Company focused on music and technology, among other things.

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