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CTA moves ahead on upgrading subway wireless to 4G

CTA subway under Lake St.   LaSalle Loop | Sun-Times files

CTA subway, under Lake St. & LaSalle in the Loop | Sun-Times files

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Updated: November 5, 2013 6:23AM

Blue and Red Line subway riders would be able to receive emails, text friends and browse the Internet under a plan announced Thursday to upgrade the agency’s underground wireless network.

The Chicago Transit Authority Thursday plans to boost the subway wireless network from the first-generation 1G technology, which supports mostly basic phone functions, to more current and versatile 4G.

“I think that’s great,’’ Red Line rider Ronny Polk, 39, said Thursday. “I’d be able to use my Internet and all the data on my phone.’’

Now, after the Red Line goes into a tunnel somewhere after 35th Street, his smartphone is almost useless.

“It’s dead. There’s no signal,’’ Polk said.

Emails pop up late, some incoming calls wind up in voicemail, and he can’t access the CTA bus tracker to find out what time a connecting bus will be available when he gets off the Red Line.

The CTA wireless system dates back to 2005 and cost $12 million to install. The CTA leases its underground wireless service to six vendors — Verizon, Sprint, ATT, T-Mobile, Cricket and U.S. Cellular — for $1.8 million annually.

“The infrastructure was pioneering for the transit industry when it was installed and through this upgrade initiative, CTA looks to lead in the industry once more by offering a fully-operational, 4G network across all major wireless service providers,” CTA President Forrest Claypool said in a statement.

Requests for qualifications of possible bidders were posted Thursday, with responses due by Nov. 14, CTA spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said. At the earliest, work would start in mid-2014, with the current wireless network remaining operational until upgrades are completed.

The project will be funded through CTA’s annual capital program.

The CTA’s tunnels speed travelers underground on the Blue and Red Lines, where subways cover 12 miles underground but separate into 24 miles of individual tunnels.

Blue Line rider Lupe Martinez, 24, said a 4G connection would definitely be helpful as subway trains barrel underground.

“Once I hit those tunnels, I really don’t have service,’’ Martinez said Thursday. “I’m on my phone, looking things up, and I realize I don’t have an Internet connection. I’m looking at email and it kind of stops until I get to another area. So I think it would be great.’’

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