Free Wi-Fi Catches on With Subway Riders

The new service is part of a $200 million plan to connect the subway to the outside world

Emily Langmead was hesitant when she first heard of free Wi-Fi in the subway. Like many New Yorkers, she wondered what the catch was.

But now, she says, she uses it all the time.

One month in to wireless service being provided in six New York City subway stations, commuters like Langmead are happy to have chances to connect when their trains head underground and pull into one of the stations with Wi-Fi.

"Are you kidding? Being able to check my email when the train is in the subway is an amazing thing," she said. "I love it."

The new service is part of a $200 million plan to connect the subway to the outside world. Transit Wireless, the company in charge of building and designing the network, is working with many carriers to provide cellphone and data connectivity services to all 277 underground stations in New York by 2017.

The service, sponsored by Google Offers, is available on train platforms at five stations, all in the Chelsea neighborhood. Customers of T-Mobile and AT&T can also use cellphones in the six stations. Negotiations continue for telecom giants like Verizon and Sprint to join.

While some other cities have had data and cellphone connectivity in their subways for years, some New Yorkers were not thrilled with the idea because it can be disruptive. Others, though, see a benefit.

"It helps if you are in an emergency and you need to communicate with somebody and you don't have email or anything else functioning, I think it can be very useful," said subway rider Melissa Cardona-Bodhert.

While there have been concerns about noise pollution, the benefits of staying connected outweighed the concerns, said William Bayne Jr., the CEO of Transit Wireless.

Boingo Wireless is one of the first clients for Transit Wireless. Boingo is known for providing Wi-Fi services in airports but now wants to enter the advertising game.

Both companies see the move to wire the subways as a gold mine. Sponsoring Wi-Fi provides companies with the chance to advertise to more than 1.6 billion riders every year. And although Google Offers' sponsorship officially ends on Sept. 7, it could continue. Boingo and Transit Wireless said they have others in the pipeline, in case it doesn't.

"We definitely think we will be able to have continued sponsorship because this represents a really unique way for advertisers to really reach consumers," assured Dawn Callahan, Boingo's vice president of consumer marketing.

Some of the sponsorship money goes to cover operating costs, which Transit Wireless says can cost several thousand dollars a month per station. The MTA is working with Transit Wireless but says it will not incur any costs.

"There is an explosion of Wi-Fi utilization right now. There are a lot of new Wi-Fi devices that are entering the marketplace," Bayne said. "All that is really inviting for sponsors because it really exposes the sponsor's products and services through advertising to billions of ridership over the course of time."

Transit Wireless won the contract in 2007 to wire the city's subway system, now 105 years old. The project will take almost seven years because of the complexity of the system. Bayne says that the subways' age and the fact that it is open around the clock present special challenges.

The company is working on the project on weekends and during off hours. In his office in Queens, Bayne and his staff are working on the next installment of 30 stations along the west side of Manhattan. Times Square and Columbus Circle, two of New York's busiest stations, are in the next group to be wired by the end of the year.

"If you got a long commute, that could be as long as 30 minutes, that you are basically without any type of connectivity which some for people is like cutting off their arm," Callahan said. "So I think that this presents people a way for them to stay connected."

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