Contractor wants out of expansion work

The company installing cellphone service in Metro's underground stations and tunnels is calling it quits -- meaning it could be 2016 before riders can use their phones throughout the Metro system.

Powerwave Technologies Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and asked a court to let it stop work on installing wireless coverage in the Metro system. It is awaiting a hearing, but four people who worked for Powerwave on the system told The Washington Examiner they were laid off a week ago.

Metro had already told Congress it will miss a March deadline for having cellphone coverage throughout its system and is lobbying for a December 2015 due date. But Powerwave's financial problems call into question whether the work can get done by then.

The delay caused by Powerwave could last between three months and a year, depending on the bankruptcy proceedings, said Richard Bennett, a wireless communications expert with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Metro did not comment, referring all questions to the wireless carriers that are supervising the work.

However, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles has said wireless installers have to go through rigorous safety training, some of which can take up to a year.

Powerwave has the contract to do the work in the Metro system, which is overseen and paid for by several wireless companies.

But Powerwave says those companies haven't paid millions of dollars they owe.

"The project has not been, and is not projected to be, profitable for [Powerwave]. [Powerwave] has had ongoing disputes with the [wireless carriers], including [Powerwave's] attempt to collect millions of dollars of cost overruns incurred in connection with the project," the company's bankruptcy documents say.

In October, Sarles asked Congress for more time to complete the work, saying he did not expect full coverage in Metro tunnels until December 2015. The project "has required significantly more time than any of the parties envisioned," he wrote in a letter.

But the wireless carriers in charge of the contract, including Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T, blamed Metro for many of the delays in a 2011 letter obtained earlier by The Washington Examiner. The letter said Metro safety escorts arrived late or unprepared for work alongside Powerwave employees. And Metro took 100 or more days to approve plans for work, as papers were pushed from department to department.

The lack of cellphone service is a safety concern for officials, as Metro often warns riders of problems via Twitter and text messages. Metro has service in most of its underground stations but is still awaiting coverage in the tunnels.

The carriers paying Powerwave said

Thursday night they weren't sure how long the company's bankruptcy would delay the work.

"At this early stage, we are assessing the impact, if any, the [bankruptcy] filing may have on the [Metro] project," Melanie Ortel, a spokeswoman for the carriers, wrote in an email. "Riders will not experience any interference to current service in the [Metro] stations."

Powerwave did not return calls seeking comment.