Tunnel vision: getting New York talking
By Jonathan Nally
Monday, 30 September, 2013
New York’s subway is finally being outfitted with wireless and public safety comms connectivity, through the efforts of Transit Wireless, majority owned by Australia’s BA Infrastructure Group.
With over 460 stations, 277 of them underground, the New York City subway is one of the largest in the world. It carries more than 1.6 billion passengers per year - that’s around 5.4 million per day on weekdays. Yet remarkably, until recently, this transit system in one of the world’s greatest metropolises was deaf to radio signals in its underground stations.
But that is changing, thanks to the efforts of Transit Wireless, a US company majority owned by Broadcast Australia Infrastructure Group (BAI). In a 26-year deal with the New York City Transit Authority, Transit Wireless is progressively rolling out mobile phone, Wi-Fi and public safety communications connectivity in all of those 277 underground stations through what is arguably the biggest distributed antenna system (DAS) to be deployed globally.
New York’s transit system can trace its history back more than 100 years. “It’s an incredible network. It’s a beautiful, old system that was built back in the early 1900s, and it’s really the lifeblood of the city,” says Chris Jaeger of BAI. “The subway really is what makes the city tick in a lot of ways.
“But they didn’t have wireless coverage. Up until we launched the first six stations with 2G and 3G systems in 2011, there hadn’t been any wireless for public or business use.”
Jaeger is managing director of international business, transit systems and large venues for BAI, and has been at the forefront of Transit Wireless’s efforts in New York. He joined BAI in 2005, having previously worked for Telstra in the 1980s, and then Radio Frequency Systems in Adelaide, which he ended up running for 18 years in Melbourne and Shanghai. With BAI, he worked on developing the international business, culminating in the acquisition of a Hong Kong company, Radio Frequency Engineering (RFE), in 2007. RFE specialises in radio communication networks in confined coverage areas. It has done its biggest business in subway environments, completing work on cellular, private and emergency services networks for the subway systems of Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Taipei.
“Hong Kong has really been the lead subway in the world when it comes to deploying those types of services for their ridership,” says Jaeger. “They’ve been doing it since the mid-1990s. So if you go on the Hong Kong subway today, you’ve got 2G, 3G, 4G coverage through the stations and through the tunnels. RFE did a lot of that work for MTR, which is the subway operator in Hong Kong. RFE is still doing a lot, as there is still expansion going on in the subway itself, with more stations and tunnels being built. And they’re always upgrading the technology.”
In 2010, BAI invested in a New York business called Transit Wireless, with a view towards designing and installing a wireless system in the city’s underground subway stations. “Transit Wireless already had a licence with the New York City Transit Authority, but for various reasons the owners hadn’t been able to move ahead,” says Jaeger. “So we’ve come in and brought our business expertise, our ability to work on difficult projects, and our financing. Working in partnership with original shareholders we got the whole thing moving, and so far we’ve built out 36 stations in New York City.”
It seems amazing that a city like New York could be so far behind global cities when it comes to providing comms in its underground stations. Why has it taken so long?
“Well I think it’s a combination of a number of things,” says Jaeger. “One was getting everyone to agree on the right approach, especially when working in a subway of such age and 24-hour operation. We needed to design and deploy the most advanced equipment/technology to secure the quality of wireless services expected by our customers - in a very harsh environment. Another was having the financing for it. That’s the interesting thing in the approach that we’re involved with, in that we’re actually funding the rollout - amounting to some $200 million in capital costs to build out this network. We organised the financing, so there’s no cost to the New York City Transit Authority or their customers. Indeed, they have a revenue sharing arrangement with us, so when we’re earning revenues, they share in some of those revenues.”
Transit Wireless now has contracts in one shape or another with all of the major mobile carriers in the New York market (AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon). And as it builds out the network, those carriers will be progressively launching their services into the stations.
“And now 4G is a big part of that as well, so there’s LTE already running in parts of the network in Manhattan and there will be more of it,” says Jaeger. “There’s a very significant amount of LTE being deployed in the USA these days, being driven hard by the smartphone.”
The New York City Subway is a very challenging environment in which to work, primarily because the transit system operates 24 hours per day. “We have to work late at night, because during the day the trains are far too regular. Late at night and early in the morning the trains can get down to 20-minute intervals,” says Jaeger. “So we can work for 20 minutes, then the train will come and we’ll have to clear the tracks - jumping over the third rail, which is the electrical system - and then the train will go through and we’ll go back to work.
“As you can imagine, it’s a very highly interrupted process, but it’s the only way of doing it. Sometimes they will close down some tracks late in the evening to do other work, and we can then piggyback onto that. There’s a whole range of different ways of working, and it requires a very close relationship with the New York City Transit Authority, which we do have.”
Other challenges are the age of the subway network and the conditions encountered - heat, brake dust, high-pressure washing systems and so on - which mean the installed equipment has to be environmentally ruggedised. “The engineering challenge to build the communications network is substantial,” says Jaeger. “And everything has to be engineered to the nth degree to ensure reliability.”
A prime aspect of the project is the provision of a number of public safety comms initiatives. First up is deployment of the 4.9 GHz public safety band, which is being used for help-point intercom, which is a public system being made available on the platforms. Each intercom is connected to a Transit Wireless’s 4.9 GHz access point, from where it joins a wireless mesh.
The same band can be used for closed-circuit television, so deployment of CCTV throughout the network is now feasible in a much faster way than it may have been before. “There is some CCTV there already, but the size of our new network means that the possibly of rollout becomes faster now that we’re deploying these other networks and the fibre-to-the-edge technology,” says Jaeger.
Also being deployed in the USA is 700 MHz LTE for public safety. Transit Wireless’s network can facilitate that as and when the public safety authorities decide they want that coverage. The Transit Wireless network can facilitate bands from 600 MHz up to 6 GHz.
“When you talk about public safety, the other thing that is an important part of the New York deployment is Enhanced 9-1-1,” says Jaeger. “When a call is made from the station, the location of the call is detected by the networks and the emergency services can be deployed to the particular station from where the calls come.”
The network has three basic elements. Installed in strategic locations around New York City are base station hotels or data centres. This is where the carriers come in with their base stations and connect to Transit Wireless’s DAS. Those base station hotels have internet connections into the cloud.
The base station hotels run out into the second main element of the network, which is an 864-count trunk fibre network throughout the streets of New York City that runs to all the subway stations. “The fibre network uses 864-count fibre for the subway stations, even though only a handful of fibres are needed for each station,” says Jaeger. “But you can imagine that in a city like New York, the requirements for backhaul for a whole range of different applications is huge - whether it’s the mobile networks, or stock exchanges, banks and so on - all these firms require quality fibre connectivity.
“So now that we’re building a fibre network, we can now also have a metro fibre business throughout the city as an adjunct business.”
The third element is the in-station network. The fibre runs into the station through a point of entry, and then there is a LAN - one part is a cellular DAS and the other part is Wi-Fi, with fibre-to-the-edge technology going right out to the ends of the platforms and mezzanines to ensure uniform coverage throughout the station.
“We call ourselves Transit Wireless, but basically what we do is a lot of wiring,” says Jaeger with a laugh. “A lot of fibre, a lot of coax and a lot of power wiring to ensure that wireless devices will work in these locations.”
There is a dividing line between above- and below-ground comms. “When you go into the subway part of Grand Central Station, you’ll be connecting into our network,” says Jaeger. “Above ground there’ll either be macro network coverage, such as in the Great Hall of Grand Central Station, or there’ll be another DAS system. But once you go into any part of any subway station, you’ll connect through our network.”
Initially, coverage will be on the platforms, mezzanines, walkways and anything else below ground level, right to the edge of the platforms where people get on and off the trains. But tunnel coverage is not on the cards just yet.
“The complexity around getting coverage in the tunnels is that New York has the only subway in the world that operates 24 hours per day. And so being able to work in the tunnels is an extremely complicated logistical issue, made more complicated by the age of the subway network itself,” says Jaeger. “But we’re working with the Transit Authority and the carriers and looking at ways in which we can provide some tunnel coverage going forward.”
Transit Wireless is also deploying a high-quality Wi-Fi network, 2.4 and 5.x GHz bands into the stations at the same time as it’s installing the cellular network. “That Wi-Fi has multiple uses - it can be used to provide free Wi-Fi service for the riders, and it can be used for business-to-business applications in the subway environment, public safety, M2M and monitoring and control,” says Jaeger.
Once completed, the network will comprise some 7000 antennas, 5000 access points, 350 RF nodes and 200 kilometres of trunk fibre.
One of the biggest challenges the project has faced so far was the impact of Hurricane Sandy. The subway was flooded in parts and the New York City Transit Authority headquarters was damaged - it was from there that a lot of the recovery work would normally have been managed, so they had to tackle it from other locations. For Transit Wireless, the flooding and other damage delayed the project by around three months.
“There were also all sorts of things that happened with our construction partners,” says Jaeger. “You can imagine the recovery work that went on in New York; there was suddenly a huge demand on labour to do all sorts of things. So they stopped normal work in the streets and the stations for a period of time while the civil recovery effort went ahead.
“But we got there in the end. What we’re doing now is keeping on going, building up the high-quality network.”
Transit Wireless is designing as much robustness into the system as it can. Ultimately it’ll loop the fibre networks to provide some redundancy. There’s already some redundancy in the station networks, and equipment has been hardened to such an extent that it can suffer an extraordinary amount of environmental impairment.
“We futureproofed it in that way through the deployment of a lot of fibre, broadband antenna systems, through to coax and so on,” says Jaeger.
Results so far
With 36 stations under its belt, Transit Wireless is now building out the next stage of the project. This involves another 40 sites, including Grand Central Station and some other stations in mid-town Manhattan, plus 30 stations out into Queens. This phase will be completed over the next few months. The overall project will be completed in 3-4 years.
“Everyone’s very satisfied with progress to date,” says Jaeger. “We launched Times Square and a number of other stations in April. It’s going very well.”
New York has the biggest subway in North America; Toronto in Canada has the second biggest. BAI had been in discussions with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) for a number of years. Last year it was ultimately successful, winning the bid to finance, build and operate over a 20-year period, a cellular and Wi-Fi system in 65 underground stations and all the connecting tunnels of the TTC subway, plus any new-build tunnels and subway stations.
“We’ve formed a new entity called BAI Canada, based in Toronto, and we’ve got a small team there who are going to deploy the first two major stations by the end of this year,” says Jaeger. “The network in size and ridership is about 30% the size of New York City’s.”
While some challenges are the same as in New York, there are some differences. For a start, the network is not as old - it’s only about 60 years old. And it doesn’t operate 24 hours a day; it runs about 20 hours, providing windows of opportunity to work in the tunnels when it comes time to deploy that part of the network.
“In every other sense it’s a very similar challenge,” says Jaeger. “It still requires some very significant relationships to be developed with the TTC, with the carrier customers, with the contractors and the equipment suppliers, and the special design team we have in-house, to ensure that the systems are highly ruggedised and highly reliable.”
Will services such as a 4.9 GHz public safety system be on the cards? “That’s not in play at the moment, but we’ve allowed for it - we’ve futureproofed for it,” says Jaeger. “The deployment of 4.9 GHz is not quite as advanced in Canada as it is in the USA, but we can see it coming, as I think it’s coming in Australia as well. So our experience out of New York will be good.”
Transit Wireless is continuing to look for other opportunities in North America. “Chicago Transit Authority is looking to upgrade its system, it’s again smaller than New York, but we’d be looking at getting involved with that,” says Jaeger. “We’re still in discussions with Atlanta about the transit network there. And we’ve had some discussions in San Francisco.”
What about other such opportunities around the world? There must be plenty out there. “Well, there are a few, but we’re very specialised - we’re good when the project is technically difficult, commercially difficult and requires financing,” Jaeger says. “When it comes to other types of venues, there’s a lot more competition. There are not many who want to get involved with the significant financing and other risks involved with a transit project.”
The company is also looking at opportunities in Australia, although there isn’t much subway here. “We’re also looking for other opportunities around significant venues, whether they are stadiums or very large complexes like shopping centres,” says Jaeger. “A number of city councils - for example, Perth, Adelaide, Liverpool and Hobart - are looking for CCTV/public Wi-Fi solutions around metro areas. So we’re seeing if we can use our expertise in all of those.”
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