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Cell Service on the MBTA Is Set to Improve

Click to read in BetaBoston.

Alexandria, Va.-based InSite Wireless, which is currently performing the installation of wireless service on the MBTA, recently announced that they have partnered with all the major wireless providers — Sprint, AT&T, Verizon,T-Mobile, and Comcast (for WiFi) — on the project so that all mobile users will have access to the Internet and phone services while riding the T.

What’s more, the company is able to provide end-to-end service for mobile users throughout Boston’s subway system — on both the station platforms as well as in the tunnels.

InSite is a major player in distributed antenna systems (DAS) that bring wireless infrastructure solutions to complex locations, such as the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas, Target Field in Minnesota, and the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

The MBTA project is one of its largest to date, and much different than the highly publicized installation of DAS in New York City’s subway system. Unlike New York, Boston subway users will be able to use their wireless devices from the street, to the underground platform, and during their ride. In NYC, only the platforms are enabled for wireless connections; once a user goes into the subway tunnels, phone calls or Internet access is lost.

As Insite’s update statement said, “The MBTA DAS is one of the few neutral host systems in the U.S. that provides wireless coverage throughout the underground platforms and tunnels.”

Here is how the Insite Wireless service breaks down and will continue to be rolled out over the next year:

  • T Mobile/Sprint – has both 2G and 3G fully operational on all platforms and tunnels – 4G will be added by mid-2014 in all areas
  • AT&T – has 2G, 3G and 4G operational in all areas
  • Verizon – has 2G, 3G and 4G in the heart of Boston (Bowdoin, Government Center, State Street, Park Street & Downtown Crossing) and 2G and 4G in all outlying stations; 3G coming by mid-2014
  • Comcast XFinity WiFi – will be available on Green Line Station platforms by the end of 2014 – infrastructure being installed

The project, which has been going on for more than a decade, has faced some challenges, most notably the availability to work only during the hours the the T was shut down at night, as well as the ongoing changes in technology since the project began.

As David Weisman Insite Wireless’s president and chief executive told me, when they started, they were working to bring better voice services to T riders, as they have been working, technology has advanced to the point where 3G and 4G wireless capabilities are the expected norm.

Weisman said that the project is a partnership “between us, and the MBTA and the wireless providers.” The MBTA will actually share in the revenue that the wireless providers will pay to have access to the underground antenna systems, which will go a long way toward defraying the costs of the project.

Weisman was pretty excited about the breadth of the project, even referencing the Kingston Trio song about the ride caught for eternity on the old “M.T.A.” saying, “Charlie may not be able to get off the MBTA, but he can call home, he can text home, he can watch a movie, and now access the Internet.”


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