One of the great frustrations of riding on our Washington Metro subway system is that the cellular reception is so spotty. And don't even think of bringing out your laptop to check mail.
But now it looks as if Metro is going to move into the 21st century. On Nov. 7, the transit agency issued a Request for Proposals to build a wireless system throughout the Metro system. The system would cover the station platforms and entries, underground pathways, tunnels, stairs, escalators and elevators.
The complete system would carry cellular voice and data, broadband data, WiFi and WiMax signals for Metro's passengers, and also be used for internal Metro communications and as well for a public safety system for first responders.
The wording of the RFP is a bit confusing. Metro said the system will provide “the Authority (Metro) and its ridership a publicly accessible Wireless Internet Service Provider system that utilizes WiFi and/or WiMax.”
At the same time, the proposal also asks for “a 'neutral host' or an 'open access' cellular platform that permits WMATA's(Metro) customers to select and use commercial carriers and services on a non-discriminatory, non-exclusive basis.” As it turns out, neither will be free public WiFi, with customers able to connect to their service of choice. The commercial opportunity is the reason Metro expects carriers to pay for the opportunity to provide service.
Although all three components are mentioned in the 96-page RFP, the WiFi/WiMax piece is also described as optional, while the other three elements — cellular, public safety and internal radio — are required.
According to the RFP, Metro will award the contract in September, 2007. Eligible firms will proceed in two phases, with Metro picking up to five proposals to proceed to final evaluation from what could be a large stack of replies to the RFP that will be due January 16.
By the way, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in the San Francisco region, is also looking into more sophisticated services. That agency has selected four companies to test broadband services that would be available on trains.