As long as there have been cell phones, riders of Muni's light rail system have been afflicted with the scourge of no bars (now dots, I guess) any time the vehicles plunged beneath the earth's crust. But according to the SFMTA, riders' nightmare of disconnectedness might soon be over (as long as you think well over a year counts as "soon").
"Muni tunnels still have no cell service," reads an SF Chronicle headline from 2013. In the report, an N Judah rider tells the reporter that every time the train heads into an underground tunnel, "I'm just left here on my own with my own thoughts and the people around me." A fate, we can all agree, that should be wished on no one.
At the time, the paper reported that "Muni has zero underground cell phone coverage, and there is no firm timeline for installing antennas in the downtown subway or any other tunnel...Muni officials have asked cell service companies if they would install the equipment free of charge, but have not gotten a lot of interest."
"While this is a resource we would like to provide, we have significant state-of-good-repair needs, and our main priority is to invest in our service," San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spokesperson Paul Rose said at the time.
"We are going to continue to work with cell phone providers and consider funding options, but the main priority is to improve service," he reiterated later.
But by last August, things looked fractionally better, with Rose saying that Muni is “in the process of exploring our options for Wi-Fi or cellular service in the Muni Metro...We understand that many of our riders would be interested in this service."
And it appears that that exploration has reached a conclusion, as a press release sent by the office of Board of Supervisors president London Breed Tuesday evening announced that "Board of Supervisors President London Breed, BART, and Muni Announce Plan to Bring Cell Phone Service to Muni Tunnel."
"After months of collaboration with Muni and BART officials, Board of Supervisors President London Breed, BART, and Muni will announce a proposal to finally provide cell phone service for Muni subway riders," the release reads, saying that all will be unveiled at a 9 a.m. press conference at the "Muni Van Ness underground station, mezzanine level on the north side of Market (between All Star café and Walgreens)."
In a press release sent Wednesday morning by Breed's office, more details of the plan were revealed: Apparently, the MTA Board will next week mull a proposal to allow "BART to negotiate and enter into license agreements with telecommunications carriers on behalf of the SFMTA to extend BART’s existing underground cell infrastructure and provide Muni customers with reliable cellular coverage."
BART, the release notes, "already has an underground cellular network, used by AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and Metro PCS" and "constructed the nation’s first neutral host underground cellular network that allows competing carriers to use the same equipment, extending competitive cellular markets to the underground while minimizing the amount of wayside equipment. BART and Muni will now collaborate to extend the existing BART cell network to the Muni subway."
Assuming the SFMTA Board OKs the proposal, the contract will next head to the Board of Supervisors. And after that, we'll be on our phones all the time, right? Not exactly, as according to Breed's office, "the construction to extend BART’s existing network to the Muni subway is expected to take approximately 12 to 18 months once an agreement is reached with the cellular carriers," with all costs "expected to be covered by the cellular carriers."
"It is further expected the carriers will pay annual licensing payments for operating on the network" with a contract that "could provide reliable cellular coverage for a 15-year term, plus two five-year options."
“We have heard from our riders who have asked for cell service in the subway for some time, so we are working to deliver this amenity in partnership with BART,” SFMTA Director of Transportation, Ed Reiskin says via press release.
“Providing cell service within the Muni Metro will help improve communications to our Muni riders," Reiskin said, "can assist in emergency situations, and will give the riding public an additional service they want,” and will finally, finally save that poor N Judah rider from being left with his own thoughts ever again.