No more dropped calls: NYC subway to get cell service, WiFi

The internet spreads underground. New York City subway stations get connected, but what impact will it have on workers? 

Craig Ruttle/AP
People peek out the train doors at the 86th Street station as one of the first trains pauses at the platform on the newly opened Second Ave. Subway line in New York on New Year's Day. Almost all stations are now equipped with WiFi and cellular service.

“Heading down to the subway, about to lose reception”– will no longer be a useful excuse for residents of New York City after Monday.

The NYC subway system is finishing its communications makeover a year early, governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Thursday. Wifi and cellular coverage at MTA stations could be a boon to Netflix fans, but also a burden to weary workers in need of a chance to unplug.

Connected stations have been popping up for some time, but the system will be completed when Brooklyn’s Clark Street goes live Monday. Customers of all four major carriers (Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon) will get reception on their phones, and devices will be able to access WiFi at all subway stations throughout Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, with the exception of four that are under renovation. Additionally, the system features more than 3,000 Help Point Intercoms that will provide access to 911 emergency services. 

The Metropolitan Transport Authority partnered with Transit Wireless, a subsidiary of Australian company BAI communications, to bring the city internet via 120 miles of fiber optic cables and 5,000 WiFi access points. Revenue generated from the service will be shared with the city, and it won’t rely on public funds.

“[W]e are reimagining our subway stations to meet the needs of the next generation,” said Governor Cuomo in a press release. “This will better connect New Yorkers who are on-the-go and build on our vision to reimagine the country’s busiest transportation network for the future.”

This project by the MTA joins a growing number of initiatives attempting to eliminate the few remaining internet-free areas. Facebook wants to beam internet down from the sky with drones and satellites, while Google places its bets on balloons. Such plans underscore how the internet is quickly becoming more necessity than luxury.

The benefits of universal internet access seem clear. New York State president of AT&T Marissa Shorenstein praised the Transit Wireless system for “using the latest technological tools to improve the lives of New Yorkers,” and Sprint Regional Vice President Mark Walker said that the project is “both a huge accomplishment and investment that will significantly benefit the public.”

The UN agrees. In June of 2016 it declared internet access a basic human right, recognizing that the “information on the Internet facilitates vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education,” and unequivocally condemning “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law.”

And yet ubiquitous internet access can be a double-edged sword. Increased ability to message friends and enjoy media while underground may also come with greater responsibility regarding work calls and emails. As technology has developed, so have workplace expectations. Now, more workers are coming to consider the 9 to 5 workday an outdated concept, The Christian Science Monitor previously reported.  

Work flexibility has its benefits, but it comes with dangers too. “The boundaries between work and personal lives can blur, which can cause stress,” chief human resources officer of CareerBuilder Rosemary Haefner previously warned The Monitor. 

To protect workers from such risks, France recently became the first country to legally protect workers’ “Right to disconnect.” Starting on the first of this year, after leaving the office French workers are free to ignore work communications unless negotiated boundaries are clearly defined in advance.

In New York City, 5.7 million people ride the subway on an average weekday.

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