Public Transit WiFi Headed Underground: Connecting Subway Commuters

Old South Ferry ReopensWiFi access is now available at Mt. Everest’s base camp, in remote Canadian national parks, and at hundreds of beaches across the globe. So why is it still impossible to get online while on the subway? Our American cities are awash with WiFi access—to such an extent that some residents complain of cell tower eyesores. Public transit WiFi is now available on many bus lines as well. Yet we are still unable to access WiFi while on the subway, or even while waiting for our trains.

With a little reflection, it’s not hard to appreciate why public transit mobile WiFi connectivity hasn’t yet penetrated underground modes of transportation. The tons of steel, stone, and concrete needed to support underground tunnels restrict the flow of WiFi signals. Today, 144 London Underground stations currently offer WiFi access, as do many of New York’s subway stations. All of New York’s 277 subway stations will be WiFi-equipped by 2017.

There are efforts underway to get more subway commuters connected in the coming years. For example, Toronto is adding WiFi to more subway stations. Three Toronto subway stations currently extend WiFi to passengers, and four more stations will be WiFi enabled this fall. By spring, all stations on Line 1 will be WiFi enabled. Sometime between 2017 and 2019, BAI Canada predicts extending WiFi access to subway tunnels.

Toronto’s stations are being wired through fiber optic cables laid down between stations and the WiFi central hub, located above Yonge station. New York’s subway stations are similarly arranged, as Boingo and Transit Wireless connect central Transit Wireless Base Station Hotels with iDAS (interior Distributed Antenna Systems) at each platform. This allows riders to connect briefly while the train pulls into a station—assuming they can navigate through a sponsoring advertisement before the brief stop ends.

However, it is still very difficult to enable WiFi access on a moving underground train. This will be the next big hurdle for public transit WiFi: to create smooth, consistent connectivity even while an underground train is in motion.

[Photo by MTAPhotos via CC License]