July 13, 2001 11:05 AM PDT

Cell phones tunneling in

The San Francisco Bay Area this week joined the growing number of metropolitan areas taking steps to allow people to make cell phone calls while traveling through tunnels and other wireless dead zones.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) board of directors voted to begin negotiating with a company that wants to install the antennas and cables necessary to use cell phones in the 33 miles of the system that run underground, including one tunnel that travels underneath the San Francisco Bay.

BART joins the New York City transit authority, the Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which have all made moves to wire the areas of their systems where cell phones stopped working.

The decision is another sign of the growing use of cell phones in the United States, where callers are demanding service everywhere they can get it. The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association estimates there are 118.3 million wireless customers in the United States, or about 42 percent of the country's population.

Not everyone will be pleased to hear cell phones ringing in the subways, however. Bryan Prohm of industry analyst firm Gartner said there is a possible consumer backlash from riders who are suddenly faced with a car full of cell phoning travelers. But the backlash is inevitable, whether the calls are made from subway cars or on street corners, he said.

"The backlash is only beginning, you realize, as cell phone penetration is only 42 percent in the United States," Prohm wrote in an instant message. "Wait until it hits 60 percent in three to four years."

In Washington, where the rail system has been cell phone friendly since 1994, spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said there have not been a lot of complaints from riders about cell phone users disrupting the quiet of a train ride.

But there apparently isn't a lot to complain about, he said. "A lot of people that use the system here only use it for short distances, so there are shorter calls," he said.

Not so on Amtrak, especially in the Northeast, where riders were so upset with some 45-minute cell phone conversations that Amtrak administrators established "quiet cars" on each train where using cell phones is prohibited.

The Massachusetts transit authority recently decided to slow its plans to install subway antennas because of subway riders' complaints, but a spokesman said the authority plans to continue building the coverage area.

BART directors have heard the same arguments. Although they decided to go forward with negotiations to wire the tunnels, they reserved final approval on the plan until they hear from riders about whether they want to have all the train cars be cell phone friendly, according to BART spokesman Mike Healy.

Wiring tunnels and other areas for cell phone use is a costly process, especially in New York, where there are 137 miles of track that may cost the city as much as $300 million to wire. The Massachusetts and San Francisco systems may cost less, in some estimates about $50 million.

But the payoff for some cities could be huge. In New York alone, more than 1 billion people ride the subway system every year. San Francisco's BART estimates it could make about $2 million a year by letting wireless cell phone carriers provide service inside their tunnels.

Outside the United States, in Santiago, Chile, riders began making calls even before the wireless system was completed, when they could make calls during only part of the ride. The revenue from those calls paid for the installations within a year.

In San Francisco, construction could begin by the fall, with the service beginning by mid-2002. All of BART's tunnels will be part of the new service.

 

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