FCC Commissioner O’Rielly Wants to #UnsuckDCmetro’s Communications Networks Problem



The beleaguered Washington, D.C. subway system has one federal official – and not infrequent user -- interested in keeping the subway system on track to get its wireless communications networks up to speed. 

Metrorail is in the midst of an unprecedented overhaul of its infrastructure and safety systems, and Federal Communications Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, is seeking information from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) leader on its plans to shut down a Wi-Fi pilot project at six stations after only 45 days, according to a letter released Sept. 8. 

That project would allow Metro riders to get on Wi-Fi while waiting at station platforms, but wouldn’t solve the problem of connectivity in tunnels. In the transit agency’s Aug. 29 announcement, WMATA General Manager and Chief Executive Officer Paul J. Wiedefeld indicated the project was just one way it was trying to help riders stay connected while using the subway system.

O’Rielly said there’s no need to deactivate that network after the testing period. “I am at a loss as to why these critical communications features would be disabled at a set date. The data collected during the test period should be able to be analyzed without turning off the Wi-Fi network,” O’Rielly said.

WMATA spokesperson Morgan Dye told Bloomberg BNA that “all underground stations are already wired for cellular service on all major carriers, so the point about the WiFi pilot is moot.”

The Republican commissioner also asked WMATA to release more information on its progress in installing network cables to be used by wireless carriers to support service in all of the subway system’s tunnels. 

The breakdown of communications networks used to reach emergency responders was one of several major criticisms following a January 2015 tunnel fire that resulted in one woman’s death from smoke inhalation. 

The transit agency announced in February that it would install hundreds of miles of cables over several years, as it works on other infrastructure upgrades. But WMATA hasn’t provided significantly more information on the planned milestones for that effort, O’Rielly said. He asked Wiedefeld to release details on the status, timeline and potential obstacles to completing that project. 

“A key component in improving the infrastructure of D.C. Metro and repairing the relationship with its passengers is restoring overall physical safety to the rider experience. For that to occur, passengers actually must be safe and feel equally secure in their daily transit trips, which includes their ability to reach emergency personnel in appropriate circumstances” O’Rielly said.

This isn’t the first time O’Rielly has called out WMATA for its poor wireless service. The commissioner wrote to the Federal Transit Authority in October 2015 to encourage the agency to speed up efforts in collaboration with the nation’s top wireless carriers, AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile US Inc. and Sprint Corp., to improve wireless signals inside the metro tunnels before its initially planned 2020 deadline.