Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Since late 2008, WMATA has been working to deliver modern wireless phone service throughout the underground portions of the Metrorail system. It faces a deadline to finish by October 16 or possibly lose federal funding, but it’s unclear whether they will get the project done in time, and have not shared any news of their progress with reporters or riders.

Unlike some mass transit systems, WMATA did not undertake this project simply out of a desire to improve passenger experience; they did so because of a few short sentences in the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (hereinafter PRIIA), enacted on October 16, 2008:

No amounts may be provided to the Transit Authority pursuant to the authorization under this section unless the Transit Authority ensures that customers of the rail service of the Transit Authority have access within the rail system to services provided by any licensed wireless provider that notifies the Transit Authority (in accordance with such procedures as the Transit Authority may adopt) of its intent to offer service to the public, in accordance with the following timetable:

(A) Not later than 1 year after the date of the enactment of this Act, in the 20 underground rail station platforms with the highest volume of passenger traffic.

(B) Not later than 4 years after such date, throughout the rail system.


WMATA met the first deadline, turning up a new distributed antenna system and signing on the four major carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon).  But the second deadline has proved thornier.  A recent Washington Examiner article described the contractor installing the system as being in “dire financial straits.” Anecdotal reports from riders have shown that cellular service has been spotty, even at stations which initially had good coverage.

With October 16 just over a month away, you might think that WMATA would be forthcoming with status updates.  Unfortunately, WMATA has responded to the situation with its usual opacity.What does WMATA stand to lose if they miss the deadline?  As PRIIA states, “No amounts may be provided,” and the amounts authorized under the act are considerable:

There are authorized to be appropriated to the Secretary of Transportation for grants under this section an aggregate amount not to exceed $1,500,000,000 to be available in increments over 10 fiscal years beginning in fiscal year 2009, or until expended.

Clearly, this is not a deadline that WMATA should take lightly.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, like WMATA, is in the midst of wiring its rail system for wireless service, and they, too, have experienced delays.  However, they’ve been more up-front about the situation; an article published earlier this year distinguished between delays attributable to the MBTA’s contractor and those attributable to the cellular carriers.

Even if WMATA and their contractor manage to pull through and meet PRIIA’s October 16 deadline, there are still best practices they can and should adopt.  In New York City, the contractor deploying wireless service on the subway, aptly named Transit Wireless, has established their own presence, rather than lurking in the shadows like the contractors deploying systems in DC and Boston.  Through their Web site and Twitter account, Transit Wireless reaches out directly to riders, taking questions and helping them understand what services are available, and where.

By contrast, WMATA refers questions to the carriers, who tend to either deny knowledge of service in the Metro, or refer questions back to WMATA.  After WMATA’s initial announcement of service at underground stations, updates have been spotty at best—and there’s no list of covered stations or timetable for future service rollouts.

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Kurt Raschke is an information technology professional and transit enthusiast interested in how technology can improve the usability of transit systems.  A car-free resident of Silver Spring, he is a frequent user of Metrorail and Metrobus.  He also blogs at Raschke on Transport. All views expressed here are his alone.