- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2000

Bell Atlantic Nynex stopped working on the installation of cellular telephone transmitters in the underground portions of Washington's subway system because of continuing disputes with Metro over costs and revenue, a telephone company official said yesterday.

The Washington Times reported Tuesday that cell-phone service is unavailable in the subway tunnels under the District's and Prince George's County's (Md.) poorest neighborhoods.

The situation has raised safety concerns in the wake of an April 20 Metro fire near the Foggy Bottom station. Trapped on a smoke-filled train, passengers with cell phones were the first to notify the D.C. fire department of the crisis. Those kinds of calls would be impossible to make in the tunnels where transmitters have not been installed.

Bell Atlantic agreed in a 1995 contract to install transmitters in all the tunnels, but the work was stopped amid disagreements with Metro over the project's cost and scope.

"We are still in a dispute. We are in a dispute over items in the contract of who will pay for expenses over and above the original scope," said Jim Gerace, vice president of communications for Verizon Wireless.

Verizon Wireless, a joint venture that includes Bell Atlantic Nynex and three other companies, was formed to create a nationwide cellular phone company.

Ray Feldmann, Metro spokesman, said Metro was not the cause for a breakdown in negations with Verizon.

"We have been meeting and talking with Verizon over the past several months in an effort to come to an agreement and to move forward so all Metro customers in all service areas will be able to use their cell phones," Mr. Feldmann said. "We are very encouraged that Verizon intends to complete the cell-phone antenna system in the sections of the Metrorail tunnels that have not been completed."

Mr. Feldmann said Metro and Verizon Wireless officials will meet tomorrow to resume negotiations.

Sources familiar with the contract between Metro and the phone company said Metro officials wanted antennas installed along outside tracks so they would receive additional revenues from cellular phone service. Since The Times first reported Tuesday that the subway cell-phone service was unavailable in the poorer communities, negotiations between phone and Metro officials have picked up.

Under an exclusive agreement, Bell Atlantic pays Metro 20 percent of all the money the company receives for calls made within the subway system. Bell Atlantic, which contracted in 1993 and 1995 to install a cellular phone system in the tunnels, believed the additional transmitters were not necessary because the outside tracks were served by other cellular telephone antennas. But, according to sources, Metro balked because any calls routed through other transmitters would mean less revenue for the transit system.

Mr. Feldmann said that's not the case. He said Metro requested additional equipment installed at six above-ground stations to improve service, not to enhance revenues.

"We found that some platform areas in above-ground areas needed small repeater antennas just to get a clear cell," Mr. Feldmann said.

In addition, Bell Atlantic agreed to pay for an extra transmitter system that would be used in the subway tunnels by police and fire departments in Washington, Maryland and Virginia. Because of the dispute, Metro has had to spend $2.2 million to install the public safety antenna system.

Mr. Gerace, who said he could not go into details about the dispute, said the company had planned to complete the cellular phone system in the Metro subways, but because of the dispute' all work stopped. He said the fact that the subway tunnels in the poorest parts of Washington were not wired was purely coincidental and not directed at anyone's race or income.

"If we could move forward tomorrow, we would. We fully intended to finish the project," he said.

Since Tuesday's article, the D.C. Public Service Commission has announced it intends to look into the matter and D.C. Council members have said they are outraged.

Edward M. Myers, acting chairman of the D.C. Public Service Commission, said yesterday he talked with Gary Schumann, president of Verizon Wireless, and was assured the dispute would be settled between Metro and Verizon. He said the PSC would continue to monitor the negotiations.

"He indicated there is a contract dispute that caused construction to come to a standstill, and they pledged to resolve it as expeditiously as possible," Mr. Myers said. "I think the news accounts and … the PSC should help us break through the stalemate. We have several other actions in the works."

A source familiar with the cellular phone contract said that since Tuesday's article in The Times, negotiations between Verizon and Metro have become a priority.

"We are going to resolve this one way or another," the source said.

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