Written by William Tolan
The days of having no wireless service on the CTA will soon come to an end. Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a $32.5 million deal on Jan. 30 that will allow CTA riders to have access to full 4G wireless coverage for all major providers.
The upgrade, which began on the Red Line in early January, means Chicago will soon become the largest city in North America to have full 4G coverage across its entire subway system. After the Red Line upgrade is complete, the Blue Line with undergo its own installation. The CTA expects that riders will be able to have access to all wireless functions including texting and using apps such as Facebook and Twitter by the end of 2015.
Throughout the past three years, improvements have been made to the system, including Train Tracker screens at railway stations and an expanded security camera network.
“The current subway system is 10 years old, [it was built] before iPhones, Kindles and Twitter were introduced,” said CTA Chief of Public Communications Ibis Antongiorgi during an interview with The PHOENIX. “The 4G coverage allows for not only clear and consistent voice calling, but faster and more consistent Internet speeds in all sections of the subway.”
Currently the CTA uses a 2G system, Antongiorgi said, which means it can only provide voice phone calls, limited text messaging and minimal Internet access with little to no speed. The “G” refers to to the generation of wireless technology, and each generation is meant to offer faster Internet access than the previous one, meaning that technology with 4G coverage is currently considered to be the fastest generation.
The CTA’s announcement has led to excitement throughout the Loyola community.
“I can’t get any service underground. It’s really irritating, especially if I want to see if a train is coming or even just with texting,” said Loyola junior communication studies major Hillary Anthony, 25. “I think it’s exciting. It just makes life a little easier.”
The upgrade is meant to encourage more people to use the CTA and to boost the city’s economy. One way it is doing this is by creating approximately 50 jobs in Chicago for people to design and install the new system, according to Emanuel. Most of the jobs are expected to be temporary, but CTA vice president of communications and marketing Brian Steele said that a handful of jobs dealing with maintenance will be more permanent.
While the overall response to the CTA’s changes have been positive, some people such as sophomore political science major Sana Rizvi have expressed concern over the deal because of the possibility of phone thefts increasing on the CTA.
“I feel [there are] advantages and disadvantages to the situation,” said Rizvi, 19. “It’s nice that you can make calls from underground now; however, [I think] this is going to cause more people to start using their phones on the trains and cellphone theft on the Red Line is already a problem.”
Steele said that thefts have been trending downwards for two years though and that smartphone usage is already prevalent on the CTA. Emanuel and CTA President Forrest Claypool announced on July 29, 2014, that reported crimes involving larceny and theft had decreased by 13 percent on platforms and by 19 percent on trains compared to the previous year.
T-Mobile is the project’s lead wireless provider, along with funding from AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. The project is made possible through the construction of a distributed antenna system (DAS), which will be capable of supporting 4G wireless coverage. There will be no visible equipment on the cars, according to Steele, but the antennas and cables will be installed in the subway which transmit the 4G signal onto devices.
“On behalf of the four national wireless providers, we, along with the CTA, the city of Chicago and the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, are thrilled to bring the millions of Chicago subway riders the benefits of an improved wireless experience, and we are committed to a strong partnership and successful implementation,” said Chief Technology Officer of T-Mobile Neville Ray as a part of the announcement on Jan. 30.
The deal provides many benefits for CTA riders, including support for wireless technology and better communication between CTA officials and emergency responders.
“I think it will be nice to have service underground since it always seems that once you don’t have service, you have to get into contact with people or look something up,” said junior health systems management major Danielle Knurowski, 20. “That is definitely a plus, so I will be looking forward to that.”
People take approximately 1.7 million rides on the CTA every weekday, according to the agency’s website. This means many riders will likely take notice of the upgrades, including students at Loyola who use the CTA to commute, travel between campuses and make their way throughout the city. At least half of Loyola’s undergraduate students commute to class and in between campuses, according to Loyola’s Assistant Dean of Students Kimberly A. Moore.
“I use the CTA every day in order to get to Loyola and to get back home,” said junior English major Anthony Skillen, 21. “I am excited for this because for people who have to travel a long ways to get to their destination, they can have [something] to do whether [it is] for recreation or business.”
As the changes go into effect, Steele said that there will be no inconvenience for riders throughout the year, as the installation process will be done almost exclusively on weekends between late Friday nights to early Sunday mornings. When installations are currently taking place, he said that the CTA will reroute the trains so that they operate on a single or elevated track.