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Weiner wants cell service for subway stations

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Cell phone service may be extended underground to all of New York City’s subway platforms by 2005 under U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-Kew Gardens) proposed legislation that would allow riders to quickly report any emergency, criminal acts or possible terrorist activity to authorities.

The congressman’s bill, called the Subway Cell Access Act, is in response to the recent subway tragedy in South Korea that claimed more than 100 lives and to the demand for better homeland security.

“Whenever there is a health emergency or people feel they are at risk, they should be able to reach first responders via 911, regardless of whether they are at work, in their home, or standing on an underground subway platform,” Weiner said.

Under the proposed legislation, all wireless carriers, like Verizon and Sprint PCS, will be required to install smoke detector-sized antennae in every underground subway system in the country by 2005.

Current subway service is not expected to be disrupted by the installation. Although the only subway system fully wired for underground cell phone use so far is Washington’s Metro, similar projects are currently under way in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Rod Valenzuela of Rego Park, who was waiting for a train at the 63rd Drive and Queens Boulevard station, approved of the proposed bill.

“I think it’s a great idea. A lot of things can happen down here, but you’re helpless, you’re paralyzed,” the 67-year-old said.

Mike O’Neill, 44, endorsed the measure but with some skepticism. “It’s a good idea, but I think there are other things that should be taken care of first, like plain service,” the Rego Park resident noted.

Most riders said they thought Weiner’s bill would improve their safety. “That’s good because in some situations, the pay phones aren’t working,” said Monika Varszagi, 28, of the Bronx, who was visiting her boyfriend.

Under Weiner’s legislation, service would be restricted to platform use only. In a phone interview, Weiner said there were several reasons why the proposed service would not extend into the trains themselves.

“One is a technical reason. It would be difficult and expensive to wire every car,” he said. Weiner also cited the need to avoid unwelcome cell phone conversations and pointed out there were “already personnel on the trains that have radios” who routinely patrol the cars.

Total cost of the nationwide installation, estimated to be about $84 million including New York City’s $51 million portion, would be paid by service providers, according to the congressman’s plan.

Weiner said he believes the carriers will support his bill. “Frankly, we’ve gotten some feedback on this and they’re ready to go,” he said, adding, “Frankly, this is their business and we’re bringing them millions of customers.”

A universal antennae would allow all brands of wireless service to be accessed, with the Federal Communications Commission left to decide how the costs would be divided, Weiner said.

If the bill becomes law, the FCC would oversee the entire process, from taking bids to issues of future maintenance, Weiner said.

Although “the FCC hasn’t been very cooperative on these things,” Weiner said, the government agency was working harder with the public to avoid another “unfortunate City Island incident.” Authorities had blamed a weak offshore cell phone signal for their inability to locate the four teenage boys who disappeared in the waters off the Bronx island in late 2002.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority was not a part of putting the proposed legislation together, said Tom Kelly, a spokesman for the state agency that runs the city’s subway system.

Kelly said the MTA would have no problem with the addition of the wireless antennae “as long as the costs were absorbed by other parties.”

David Samburg, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, said he could not comment on the proposal yet because the company has not completely studied the details of Weiner’s bill.

Verizon is the wireless company that implemented the proposed system in Washington. The telecommunications company has also wired the Amtrak tunnels out of Penn Station, Samburg said.

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