Sprint Amps Its Rooftop Signal, Joins Transit Wireless Subway Project

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 Wi-Fi at subway stations that have already been equipped.

The addition of Sprint will also provide service to Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile customers, who in early 2014 should have below-ground wireless access at 36 subway stations across the Chelsea neighborhood and midtown Manhattan.

Bayne says talks are underway to bring Verizon Wireless service to the stations as well. “We are also working to finalize extended contracts with T-Mobile and AT&T for the balance of the project,” he says.

Transit Wireless was formed in 2007, Bayne says, to pursue and fulfill a 25-year contract with the NYC Transit Authority to bring broadband wireless communications to all of the city’s subway stations. In 2010 Broadcast Australia, which owns and operates multimedia networks, acquired majority ownership of Transit Wireless.

The New York subway project comprises more than 22 million square feet of real estate that will receive access to wireless service, Bayne says. “What we’re deploying is a network that covers everything from 700 megahertz (MHz) to 6 gigahertz (GHz), [which includes] all your cellular bands, public Wi-Fi, as well as New York City Transit-owned spectrum,” he says.

An antenna access point connects this New York subway station to the wireless network.

Transit Wireless is designing, building, financing, and developing business on this subterranean network, Bayne says, with a revenue-sharing plan with the transit authority. The network is made up of layers with the cellular bands in one layer and the public safety and Wi-Fi bands in another layer.

Bayne’s company is also building a fiber optic network along the subway system throughout four of New York’s five boroughs. “We’re not building in Staten Island because there’s no underground subway there,” Bayne says.

Communications from every 40 to 50 subway stations will be aggregated into a base station “hotel,” he says. “All of our fiber trunks terminate back into those locations,” Bayne says, “The wireless carriers collocate there. That’s where we hand the signals back and forth.” He expects the project to require six of these base station hotels. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to establish 18 additional subway stations in several years, Bayne says, which his company will also be obligated to outfit for wireless service.

Construction began in 2011 on this underground wireless project and is planned to be completed in seven geographical phases. Phase One covered western Manhattan from 14th Street to 96th Street, which includes Times Square, Lincoln Center, Rockefeller Center, and Columbus Circle. “We’ll build all of Queens out second half of this year and into second quarter next year,” Bayne says. “We have until July 2018 to complete the network.” At the current pace, he expects to finish the entire project in four years.

Transit Wireless will operate the network after it is complete, and Bayne says that includes planning to accommodate ever-increasing levels of voice and data traffic. “We are trying to future-proof as best we know how,” he says. “We have added spare power, cable, and fiber optic distribution at every access point.”

Even if wireless technology evolves quickly, as Bayne expects, he believes the additional power and fiber cabling will allow his company to swap in new equipment as needed. For now, Bayne has plenty of work to keep him busy. “We’re deploying digital technology in a 110-year-old subway network with low ceilings, lots of heat, lots of moisture, and a lot of conflicting infrastructure,” he says.

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