Sprint Amps Its Rooftop Signal, Joins Transit Wireless Subway Project

7/30/13Follow @jpruth

Through the labyrinthine stairwells that led to the roof of the Holiday Inn near Columbus Circle in New York, I followed Joe Meyer, vice president of network service management with Sprint, to see one of Sprint’s new base stations. The array of components and antennae are part of the wireless provider’s upgrades to its above-ground network, but a collaboration with Transit Wireless, based in Long Island City, will also help bring Sprint’s spectrum to subway riders beneath New York’s streets.

Meyer came to town last week to talk about his company’s work updating its wireless service across the New York area. Bronx and Brooklyn officially got access this month to Sprint’s 4G LTE and enhanced 3G service, and work continues to bring those improvements to Queens, Staten Island, and more parts of Manhattan. “We’re rebuilding every site in the U.S. this way,” Meyer says, “where all the electronics for all of our services are now all combined.” Previously the company would separately replicate such setups for its Nextel and Clearwire networks rather than running everything through one set of electronics.

“It makes a lot better use of our real estate and spectrum assets,” Meyer says, given the recent changes within the company. In early July, Sprint completed its previously announced acquisition of Clearwire shares it did not already own. Going forward, the Clearwire spectrum will be repurposed for 4G LTE, he says, with the WiMax service continuing for the foreseeable future.

Consolidating base station hardware into one cabinet, Meyer says, can be crucial in cities such as New York, where it is not really plausible to put up standalone cell towers. Instead, equipment must be installed on rooftops every five or six blocks, he says. The long-term-evolution (LTE) network also requires fiber optics running to the base station to complete the connection to the core network, Meyer says. “We got to have a lot of capacity to send the traffic back and forth,” he says.

Completing such upgrades can be a lengthy process that requires putting together many disparate pieces. Upgrading base stations with new antennae means renegotiating contracts with building owners and the city administration. Meyer says bringing Sprint’s 4G LTE and upgraded 3G network services to the rest of New York will take “a matter of months.”

While that work goes on across the city’s rooftops, Sprint’s voice and data signal will be coming to New York’s subway system, thanks to a contract inked with Transit Wireless. “Basically you’re putting mini antennas in those stations,” Meyer says, which can be tricky given the dated infrastructure in many of the city’s subway stops. Once a station is “lit,” customers will have access to their voice and data networks while on the platform though not in transit between stops. The number of customers who would be covered by the wireless network in New York’s subway system equates to Sprint’s 61st largest market in the country, Meyer says.

But it won’t be easy. “We’ve got to do our work while the subway is running,” he says. “They’re not going to shut it down for us.”

Transit Wireless has a contract with the city to bring wireless service below ground to all 277 subway stations. CEO William Bayne says his company already has some deals in place with AT&T and T-Mobile for wireless phone service and Boingo’s … Next Page »

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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