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Metro Working On Deal With Wireless Carriers To End Tunnel Dead Spots

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The installation of wireless infrastructure would improve service both in stations and in tunnels.
Jonathan Smith: https://flic.kr/p/7SDhg6
The installation of wireless infrastructure would improve service both in stations and in tunnels.

Metro may reach an agreement this year with the four major wireless carriers to complete a project to provide coverage inside rail tunnels, an undertaking that was supposed to be finished years ago.

The lack of cell phone coverage was exposed most recently after the Jan. 12 smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza. Passengers aboard Yellow Line train No. 302 struggled to connect to 911 as smoke filled the railcars just a few hundred feet south of the station platform.

In remarks to the transit authority’s board of directors on Thursday, Metro interim general manager Jack Requa said he expects negotiations with the carriers — Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile — to proceed toward an agreement.

When asked by reporters if a deal could be reached this year, Requa responded, “That's speculating, but I would say yes.”

At issue: whether work to install the carriers’ wireless infrastructure would be performed simultaneous to Metro’s project to upgrade its underground radio communications system as mandated by Congress. The latter project is supposed to begin next January, according to Metro deputy general manager Rob Troup, who announced a timetable in April (pdf) at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG).

Each project is expected to take as long as three to four years. Metro would prefer the work be done simultaneously so crews can make the most of their time inside the tunnels, limiting disruptions to rail service. The work will require single-tracking and station shutdowns.

Under a federal mandate Metro must upgrade its communications infrastructure from the current 490 megahertz to an ultra-high frequency 700-800 megahertz range, bringing radio reliability up to 99 percent for police and firefighters rushing to emergencies on the rails. Following the L’Enfant Plaza smoke fiasco, a test was conducted in February: more than 400 911 calls were made on the four major carriers. Ninety percent of calls made inside rail stations got through, but only 28 percent of the calls from tunnels did.

“Our public safety folks think it is absolutely critical to have this in the entire WMATA system,” said Stuart Freudberg, deputy executive director of COG, after Thursday’s Metro board meeting.

“The finances, I've heard, are complicated and I think that is why I think the negotiations are taking so long. But it is viewed as an essential capability that needs to be done and accomplished as quickly as possible,” Freudberg said.

The effort to provide cell phone coverage throughout the Metrorail system by 2012 hit major obstacles. That deadline was set before the 2009 Red Line disaster, which forced Metro to deal with other, more pressing safety priorities on the tracks. In 2013 the California-based tech firm PowerWave — in charge of the Neutral Host project — filed for bankruptcy, setting back the project two more years. The wireless carriers eventually took over Neutral Host.

Another Congressional deadline — Sept. 30 — is approaching, but obviously it will not be met.


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