Metro riders will still hear silence on their phones even when Metro extends cell phone service in its underground rail system later this year.

The plan

The 20 busiest Metro stations are slated to be the first in the system to receive expanded cell phone service by October:
» Ballston
» Bethesda
» Crystal City
» Columbia Heights
» Dupont Circle
» Farragut West
» Farragut North
» Federal Triangle
» Foggy Bottom-GWU
» Friendship Heights
» Gallery Place-Chinatown
» Judiciary Square
» L’Enfant Plaza
» McPherson Square
» Metro Center
» Pentagon
» Pentagon City
» Rosslyn
» Smithsonian
» Union Station

The transit agency plans to expand cell phone service to include more carriers in the 20 busiest rail stations by the fall — but it won’t extend into the adjacent subway tunnels yet. And it could remain a patchwork of service for up to three more years.

“We’re going to have a lot of very frustrated customers if they are going to be getting and losing signals going in and out of stations,” warned Peter Benjamin, a Metro board member who represents Maryland.

The problem stems partly from the requirement that forces the agency to add the service. In exchange for $1.5 billion in dedicated federal funding that Congress authorized last year, Metro is required to have cell phone service in the 20 busiest stations by October, then have it in all 47 underground stations by October 2010. Service throughout the entire system wouldn’t need to be finished until October 2012.

Metro’s board of directors agreed earlier in the spring to negotiate a $40 million contract with national carriers Sprint Nextel, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless to fulfill the requirement.

The 21-year deal will give the cash-strapped agency about $2 million annually and marks a big change for riders who have been shut out from using cell phones in the underground system, unless they had Verizon service or roamed onto the network with Sprint.

But Metro board members said Thursday they were worried that meeting the minimums of the federal timetable without going further would just anger and confuse riders.

“We don’t want to build in frustration,” said member Gordon Linton.

Suzanne Peck, the transit agency’s chief information officer, said the system would not leave customers “dangling” without service between high-volume stations. She said the agency would focus on most-used areas of the rail network first. Being “customer-centric is absolutely a priority,” Peck said.

But it’s not clear how the cell phone companies will be able to meet the federal timetable while connecting service throughout the tunnels. The transit agency has said the cell phone companies will do the work only at night or during other track work so as not to disrupt train service.