Metro is taking the first steps of a three-year plan to install more cell phone service in its underground train network.

Four national cell phone companies will begin installing equipment at the 20 busiest underground rail stations this weekend so train riders can use other carriers besides Verizon. The service should be working by Oct. 16, the transit agency said Tuesday.

The work is the beginning of a push to bring wider cell phone access to Metro. It also will bolster the agency's coffers over the next 25 years with more than $50 million in private-sector money and will open the door to major federal funding.

Coming soon

The 20 busiest Metro stations are slated to be the first in the system to receive expanded cell phone service by Oct. 16:

»  Ballston

»  Bethesda

»  Columbia Heights

»  Crystal City

»  Dupont Circle

»  Farragut North

»  Farragut West

»  Federal Triangle SW

»  Foggy Bottom-GWU

»  Friendship Heights

»  Gallery Place-Chinatown

»  Judiciary Square

»  L'Enfant Plaza

»  McPherson Square

»  Metro Center

»  Pentagon

»  Pentagon City

»  Rosslyn

»  Smithsonian

»  Union Station


"It will be a big improvement," said Metro board member Christopher Zimmerman, who represents Arlington County.

Currently, only Metrorail riders with Verizon service can use their phones in the underground train system, with some complaining even then about spotty service. In 1993, Metro agreed to allow Bell Atlantic Mobile Systems, which later became Verizon Wireless, to build a wireless network in the underground system in exchange for a public safety radio communications network.

The old Verizon deal paid Metro $20,000 annually, according to Metro.

But under the new deal, Sprint Nextel, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless will pay Metro a minimum of $24 million over the initial 15-year term and an additional $27 million during five two-year renewal terms, according to the transit agency. Other cell phone carriers could join the network by reaching agreements with Metro or the group of carriers at an additional cost.

The deal was prompted by a bill approved by Congress last October. Metro is required to expand cell phone service in the rail system in exchange for $1.5 billion in federal funding over 10 years.

The measure requires Metro to have more cell phone service in the 20 busiest stations by October and all 47 underground stations by October 2010. However, service throughout the entire system -- meaning inside the tunnels -- isn't required to be finished until October 2012.

The first phase of work will not disrupt train service, said Metro spokeswoman Angela Gates, as the installation of new cables, antennae and other hardware will be at night when the train system is closed. But riders may notice new cabinetlike enclosures at the ends of station platforms or on mezzanines.