Chicago Subways to Get 4G Upgrade

Following the lead of NYC, Chicago is getting ready to equip its CTA subway system with 4G LTE.

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) revealed last week that it would outfit all 12 miles of its underground Red and Blue lines with 4G service. Work will start in mid-2014, but is now accepting proposals from vendors that want to be involved in the upgrade of the eight-year old 1X infrastructure underground.

According to the Chicago Sun Times, six wireless providers currently lease the infrastructure, which cost $12 million to install, for $1.8 million annually. They include Verizon Wireless , AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), and T-Mobile US Inc. , Leap Wireless International Inc. (Nasdaq: LEAP), and U.S. Cellular Corp. . Leap is in the process of being acquired by AT&T, and U.S. Cellular sold its Chicago spectrum to Sprint, but the other four will likely want to get on board (literally!). (See AT&T to Acquire Leap Wireless for $1.19B and Sprint Warns of US Cellular Switch-Off .)

The CTA, which is funding the upgrade, didn't release any details, but for a good idea of how it'll work, check out Dan Jones's story and pictures from Transit Wireless's work unwiring the NYC subway system: Transit Wireless: Unwiring the NYC Subway.

I was thinking about the CTA's planned upgrade on my morning commute today, packed in like sardines with hundreds of other people going to work. I would have liked to use my phone as I stood there, if I weren’t scared it'd get swiped by someone headed out the door.

Okay, the CTA isn't that unbearable (on most lines), but cellular connectivity underground is going to attract some mixed reviews. For the most part, however, it's inevitable and a good opportunity for the cellular operators to show the strength of their 4G networks. In the train I was on, for example, Sprint's LTE marketing was plastered everywhere with Chicago cleverly tweaked to read "CHIC4GO." If it's providing reliable, fast LTE service underground in the same car that's touting that service, it'll produce some good vibes for the operator.

It's not just underground that's getting cellular-friendly either. Last week, a 28-person panel advised the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) to allow airline passengers to use their devices in airplane mode from takeoff to landing. Phone calls will still be banned, but data usage will be allowed if the FAA accepts the recommendation.

Mobile addicts will welcome this change thousands of feet up as much as the changes below ground. Let's just hope they don't abuse the privilege. Loud talkers, mobile game sound users, wearers of headphones that don't contain the noise -- I'm looking at you.

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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DOShea 10/9/2013 | 3:16:16 PM
Re: When downtime was good Good point about the limited use case for short trips, though I do think customers have come to expect the coverage in subways anyway. Transition to a new card fare system on the CTA has gone pretty horribly, and I would agree this technology transition probably will take longer than expected.
MordyK 10/8/2013 | 5:36:21 PM
Re: Second City Small Cells Perhaps this can be a catalyst for an agreement on shared RAN small cells for suitable locations.
Phil_Britt 10/8/2013 | 4:23:47 PM
Re: When downtime was good As a lifelong Chicagoan (now in the suburbs), expect deployment to be slow at best. Also expect it to be noisier than usual as they work on any remaining infrastructure.

Though I ride the CTA little now (I'm in Metra territory), the 4G likely won't make much difference for many short trips -- lack of space and safety can limit practicality during rush hour, and the subway noise and rough riding conditions can make 4G much less usuable than one might initially think.
Sarah Thomas 10/8/2013 | 1:20:51 PM
Re: When downtime was good Yikes, here is proof that train riders are too caught up in their smartphones: http://www.theverge.com/2013/10/8/4816576/oblivious-cellphone-users-didnt-see-gunman-says-sf-attorney Scary.
pzernik 10/8/2013 | 11:10:19 AM
Re: When downtime was good Sarah, like you said, we already have voice service on the CTA so 4G data may just make it quieter.  I suspect much of the upgrade will be beefing up the back haul network to handle all that 4G data.
Sarah Thomas 10/8/2013 | 10:36:27 AM
Re: When downtime was good It's true -- everyone is glued to their phones! I've seen people playing games, watching movies, a lot of Kindle reading, and tons of people who listen to music way too loudly. It doesn't really stop underground either, as they're using offline apps, so the annoyance might not get that worse. Even if you have service, it's hard to hear on the train, so it's not ideal for phone calls.
Sarah Thomas 10/8/2013 | 10:34:51 AM
Re: Second City Small Cells I think so. It'll license it to all the major operators, so they'll have to agree on an approach. Small cells might save them time and money.
Sarah Thomas 10/8/2013 | 10:33:48 AM
Re: Timeline My read of the Chicago one is that connectivity should actually work the entire way underground, not just at the stations, although we don't even have WiFi in the stations yet...not really necessary as you don't want to linger in any of them.
Sarah Thomas 10/8/2013 | 10:32:41 AM
Re: Timeline Yeah, they've been talking about Chicago for awhile, but said construction might not begin until mid-2014 "at the earliest." I've lived here long enough to know that means it'll be a looooong time after that before it's actually complete. Anything with the city works that way.
Gabriel Brown 10/8/2013 | 10:29:39 AM
Re: Timeline You should try the Londond Underground. We now have WiFi at quite a few stations, but nothing in the actual tunnels. Which is a shame because that's exactly when you need to look-up the times of your onward train.
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