Cellular in Subways Around the World

Smartphones in Subway

Though it’s almost a month old now, this story in the National Post still gets my blood boiling every time I start thinking about it. In a nutshell, the TTC has hired a contractor to bring wireless service to Toronto’s underground. And none of the Big Three carriers in this country are interested.

Granted, the TTC is hardly a world-class public transportation system anyway, so it’s business as usual on the so-called “Better Way”. I’m also keenly aware that a lot of Torontonians don’t actually want cellular service in subways; it’s their last public refuge from people talking loudly on their phones, after all.

I don’t know what can be done about the Big Three not playing ball with the TTC, but I do know from personal travel experience what it’s like to have mobile service on underground trains. Here are some random observations from some places I’ve been:

Barcelona

My girlfriend and I checked out Barcelona for a week in 2012. We only took the Metro de Barcelona once or twice, but I don’t recall a lot of people talking on their phones. What I do remember is being able to access Google Maps and plan which exit to take to get to where we were going — that and making sure we were headed in the right direction to get there.

Buenos Aires

I visited Buenos Aires in 2008, and travelled on the Subte a fair bit there. At the time there was no cellular service in tunnels, but there was free WiFi on the platform of every station. Public WiFi networks can be dangerous if they’re not properly set up, but they also give connected customers something useful to do while waiting for a train.

In the absence of a proper underground mobile network, I see this as a decent compromise.

Hong Kong

Every year my girlfriend and I visit her family in Hong Kong, where fast mobile service is available everywhere on the MTR. Platforms and trains get crowded, to be sure, and you do notice the occasional loudmouth on a voice call. But this is the exception, not the rule — most people are texting, IM-ing or checking  reviews of the restaurant they’re heading to on OpenRice.

Tokyo

I’ve had the good fortune of visiting Tokyo more times than I can count. It took until my fourth visit in 2008 to have it pointed out to me that there is actually no cellular service when trains go underground — everybody I’ve seen patiently hammering out text on their keitai (now iPhones) are actually drafting messages to send once they get topside.

When above ground riders refrain from making voice calls, probably because of the signs in most cars instructing them not to. Surprisingly, it wasn’t all that long ago that texting was frowned upon as well.

So Tokyo is clearly an anomaly, but the point that I’m trying to make here is that a mobile signal underground doesn’t automatically turn a subway car into a cacophony of voice calls.

If you’ve got mobile service in the subway where you live  — or if you’ve tried it somewhere else — what are your thoughts? A nuisance? A godsend? Tell us about it!

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