New York

Cell phone service comes to 30 more NYC subway stations — but the MTA dodges the terrorism question

New York City subway station

Above: New York City subway station

Image Credit: Sean Ludwig/VentureBeat

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New York City’s one billion subway riders are about to get a pleasant surprise: more cell phone service underground.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, along with Transit Wireless and the four big carriers, is expanding its cell phone service project to 30 more stations, including massive hubs like Times Square and Rockefeller Center.

“Every service that we’ve come to expect above ground will be enjoyed and expected below ground,” MTA acting executive director Thomas Prendergast told reporters during the announcement this morning.

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Above: Along with cell phone service, commuters will also be able to take advantage of Boingo’s sponsored Wi-Fi service.

The rollout, which is expected to extend to all subway stations by 2017, has been a slow and difficult one for Transit Wireless, which has had a tough time adapting new technology to New York City’s 110-year old subway system.

“One of the challenges we face is figuring out how to incorporate technology into a system that wasn’t even built for it. A lot of things just take time here,” Transit Wireless CEO Bill Bayne said.

But while the MTA and carriers were quick to talk about the security benefits of the cell phone service project, what was most telling was what they didn’t talk about: the terrorism question. Is the MTA aware of the possibility that terrorists could use the cell phone service to remotely detonate explosives?

Thomas Prendergast’s response wasn’t particularly illuminating.

“We work very closely with the counter-terrorist task force in New York City and any decisions we make about any communications medium in the subway are run through those channels,” Prendergast said, dodging the question.

The concern, while a tad sensational, is understandably on everyones’ minds, given that remote detonation was the method used in the Boston Marathon bombing last week. While the MTA left the question unanswered today, it’s certainly one that will pop up frequently as the company continues to expand cell phone service in subways.

Another significant — but slightly less pressing — concern is whether the increase in cell phone service will increase the number of devices stolen from subway riders. Prendergast’s response? Use common sense.

“I think proper care should be taken, as you do with your wallet and things like that, but beyond that, this service is something that you should use when you use the system,” he said.

Photo: Sean Ludwig/VentureBeat