New Connectivity for New Yorkers

Sept. 15, 2017
100-year-old subway system gets a Wi-Fi facelift - but why is it so difficult to bring connectivity to subways?

Bringing wireless connectivity to one of the busiest transit systems in North America isn’t just a case of turning up and plugging in hardware. Daniel Faurlin, director of solutions marketing at Alcatel Lucent Enterprise explains what it takes to deliver 21st Century connectivity for the New York City Subway’s 10 million monthly users in the 100-year-old system — one of the longest and busiest subway systems in the world.

Today’s travelers are a far cry from those that rode the subway a decade ago. They’re connected and expect connectivity wherever they go — including on public transportation. It may seem like a simple demand to the individual, but providing connectivity to those travelers when they number in the millions and are traveling underground presents a unique set of challenges to engineers.

No Easy Feat

It is estimated the NYC subway system has an annual ridership of 1.7 billion. To bring connectivity to passengers on this scale, Transit Wireless was awarded a 27-year contract in 2011 to design and deploy an ambitious project providing Wi-Fi, cellular and vital 911 services to the subway system. This free Wi-Fi needed to be fast, easy to access and available at all 277 subway stations in four major New York boroughs — Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens.

Big Challenges for the Big Apple

The subway operates an extensive 24/7 service, and this continuity offers minimal maintenance windows and close to non-existent installation windows for engineers. To make this ambitious project feasible, all on-site hardware needs to be intuitive and swift to deploy.

The hardware used for the project is housed in enclosures in harsh underground environments where temperatures continuously fluctuate and routinely top 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Deployment of rugged hardware that continues to deliver high reliability, availability and redundancy in challenging conditions throughout a lengthy deployment lifecycle is therefore a top priority.

Rugged with a Capital R

Any switch deployed needs to be able to handle the unique conditions of the NYC subway, such as humidity and metal brake dust in the atmosphere, and still be flexible enough to be rolled out in the unique conditions of each subway station. And as smart city projects and other ambitious IoT deployments push network components out of the comfort of centralized, climate-controlled environments into streets, city outskirts and other challenging locations, hardware needs to get tough.

Enter the ruggedized switches developed to meet the very harshest environmental conditions. Transit Wireless selected convection-cooled, hardened LAN switches capable of withstanding military and industrial grade shock tests — a proven design already deployed in challenging transportation projects around the world, such as the distance record-breaking Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland.

Supply and Demand

Deployed hardware needs to be able to cope with high traffic density and varied peaks in demand which tops 330,000 users per day. All network traffic passing in and out of the 277 connected subway stations passes through the installed switches — think thousands of users on social media, shopping and browsing at any given moment in time, all expecting an uninterrupted high quality of service.

To solve traffic density issues, deployed switches harness intelligent traffic management and boast 10Gig uplinks and link aggregation to increase throughput, and add an extra layer of redundancy to the network.

Secured at Source

While recent security issues such as the widespread distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks of 2016 or the WannaCry ransomware outbreak this year have put IT security front and center in the media, there is an ongoing focus on securing transportation networks from outside threats.

For example, the rugged hardware deployed across the Transit Wireless system incorporates technology to protect against cyber hackers, and helps secure the wider network from being compromised by ransomware or other malware, enhancing overall network security.

Built to Last and Built for the Future

The network has been designed to scale to support upcoming new initiatives from Transit Wireless, such as HD displays and safety points rolled out into all connected stations. With smart city projects incorporating increasingly large numbers of smart sensors and other IoT devices in various roles, deploying hardware with open standards is vital to support multi-vendor solutions and offer interoperability for any future expansions and IoT projects.

Boosted Benefits

The close collaborative partnership between the switch supplier and Transit Wireless means more services for travelers with capabilities to boost bandwidth and service quality. Future plans include expanding Wi-Fi coverage to the extensive subway tunnels so travelers can enjoy an uninterrupted, fully-connected experience from departure to arrival — an ambitious expansion to an already colossal networking project.