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4 wireless providers to bankroll $32.5M in 4G coverage to CTA subways

The country’s four major wireless providers have agreed to bankroll a $32.5 million deal to make Chicago home to the largest subway system in North America with 4G wireless coverage in its underground trains and tunnels, officials say.

Dropped cellphone calls, spotty text message transmissions and laggard Internet surfing should be a thing of the past by the end of the year, when full 4G underground service should be completed on 22 miles of Red and Blue Line tunnels and platforms.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is expected to announce the 4G deal — brokered with help from the city’s Chicago Infrastructure Trust — on Friday. He considers it one of the priorities of his administration, a mayoral spokeswoman said.

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The project was originally projected to cost $27 million but was expanded to $32.5 million — at the request of the four wireless providers — with upgrades that should provide better underground reception and more capacity.

T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon additionally are expected to collectively pay the Chicago Transit Authority $500,000 a year in lease fees, with a 3 percent “annual escalator” built into the 20-year deal, CTA President Forrest Claypool said. The lease fees on the existing, slower 2G subway network yields the CTA $1.8 million annually.

The latest package includes shifting the cost of maintenance, which currently is $400,000 a year, to the carriers, Claypool said. Plus the CTA will not have to pay the principal and interest on $32.5 million in bonds to cover the upgrade as originally planned, he said.

“We’re well ahead in net when you combine everything together,’’ Claypool said. “It’s very simple math.”

The upgraded service should allow customers on Blue and Red Line CTA subway platforms and tunnels to surf the web, watch live-streamed video, stream music, talk on a cellphone, check email or to contact their office without interruption.

That includes tourists or business types who get on the underground Blue Line station at O’Hare International Airport and head into the city.

It will be a boon to those who use the CTA as “a second office” while also allowing them to stay in touch with family and friends from their L seat, Claypool said.

“I expect it to be comparable to your on-the-street wireless experience today,’’ said Jennifer Silveira, T-Mobile’s vice president of engineering for the provider’s central region.

“It is truly going to be a 21st century system.’’

The new system will also allow for more reliable communication between CTA employees and first responders in the event of an underground emergency, Claypool noted.

For the first, time, Claypool said, CTA subway workers or riders will “be able to send pictures of what’s actually happening to a first responder.”

Asked why the four carriers would want to pay for installation of the 4G system, Silveira noted that 10 million people a month take the Red and Blue Lines — the CTA’s busiest.

“It’s important for us all, as carriers, to make sure that our subscribers are having the greatest experience possible where they work, travel and play — and that includes the CTA,’’ Silveira said.

The four carriers also partnered together in a 4G project in Boston’s tunnel system, but that involved only one tunnel, and the project was not 22 miles long, Silveira said. New York City’s subway system has a version of 4G, but only on its platforms, not its tunnels.

T-Mobile assumed the role of lead negotiator on behalf of the carriers, which are still finalizing the details of the upgrade, Silveira said.

The network upgrade began earlier this month and should start appearing in Blue Line tunnels by mid-summer, said John Flynn, the CTA’s vice president of technology. By the end of the year, installation should be completed on both the Blue and Red Lines, he said.

Metra has been struggling for several years to bring Wi-Fi to its trains at no cost to the suburban commuter rail agency. However, Claypool said, “Metra has a different challenge, and we benefitted from Mayor Emanuel’s Infrastructure Trust. They are the ones that negotiated this deal, which was extremely difficult, between four large corporations with lots of technical requirements. We are grateful to the Infrastructure Trust.”

The trust was created in April 2012 under the Emanuel administration to help the city and its sister agencies find alternative financing on infrastructure projects.

The 4G subway project, Emanuel said in a news release, “is another way that we are investing in a modern CTA to encourage ridership, make Chicago more economically competitive, and open up more economic opportunities to more residents throughout the city.”

The design and installation of the system will create about 50 jobs, city officials said.

The wireless upgrade is among a series of CTA technology advances in the last three years, including expansion of Train and Bus Tracker, digital signs and train tracker screens at rail stations, and an expanded security camera network, Claypool said.