- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2000

The District of Columbia Public Service Commission will investigate why Bell Atlantic Nynex has not provided cellular-telephone service in subway tunnels in the city's and Prince George's County's (Md.) poorer areas, the agency's acting chairman said yesterday.

Referring to a report in yesterday's editions of The Washington Times, acting Chairman Edward M. Myers said the omission of cell-phone service in subway tunnels shows a disregard for the poor.

"We are concerned about the disparity treatment relative to income groups high- and low-income groups," he said. "We would want to look into that. It just doesn't sound right to me that some areas would be excluded."

The situation presents a safety hazard cell-phone calls made by passengers and passers-by during last month's tunnel fire near the Foggy Bottom Metro station would have been impossible to make at stations in poorer neighborhoods, The Times reported yesterday.

Although the Public Service Commission does not regulate cell-phone service, officials with utilities and telephone companies take notice when the agency makes inquiries, Mr. Myers said.

"Every time a regulator is concerned, [company officials] normally dig into their company so they can come back to us," he said.

Mr. Myers also noted that the Federal Communications Commission has authority over cell-phone companies, adding that he can ask the FCC to intervene if he cannot get answers from Bell Atlantic.

An FCC spokeswoman did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment yesterday.

The Times reported that Bell Atlantic and Metro agreed in contracts in 1993 and 1995 to expand cell-phone service to the entire subway system by 1998.

But expansion of the subway's cell-phone service stopped in 1997 after service had begun in downtown and Northwest Washington, Montgomery County, Md., and Northern Virginia.

Asked about the gaps in service, a spokeswoman for the cellular-phone firm told The Times the company had fulfilled the requirements of the contract.

The Blue Line east of the Anacostia River, which was opened in November 1980, and the Green Line in Columbia Heights still have no cell-phone service, The Times has found.

D.C. Council members who represent the areas excluded from subway cell-phone service expressed outrage over the omission yesterday and called for service to be established in their communities.

"We can't stand for unequal treatment or inequality of service," said council member Harold Brazil, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

Metro officials told The Times that Bell Atlantic ran out of money, but a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless, a company formed by Bell Atlantic and three other firms to provide nationwide cell-phone service, said she could not explain why some neighborhoods were omitted.

"I think this is an issue of disparity and unequal treatment," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat and a member of the Metro Board of Directors.

"It raises some serious questions of equity," said Mr. Graham, who represents the Shaw and Columbia Heights neighborhoods, which are on the portion of the Green Line where cell-phone service was not extended.

He said he would contact Bell Atlantic officials to get an explanation and find out when and if the system will be completed.

Council member Sandy Allen, Ward 8 Democrat, said she is upset that residents east of the Anacostia River on the Blue Line cannot use their phones on the subway.

She said she will contact Metro and Bell Atlantic to be sure that service is provided to the Green Line between the Anacostia and Branch Avenue stations, which will be open next year.

"We have to find out why. We need to be protected as much as anyone else in the city," Miss Allen said. "It is east of the river, it does not look good. It is something we want done."

Mr. Brazil said cell phones are used mostly for personal safety and should be available to everyone, adding that excluding poor neighborhoods "could have an impact on the public safety."

Council member Kevin P. Chavous "is outraged to know this disparity exists east of the [Anacostia River]," said his chief of staff, Willie Lynch. "It is unacceptable that there is service west of the river that's not on the other side. This is another classic case that is appalling to the council member."

Mr. Lynch said Mr. Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat, will contact Bell Atlantic and the FCC personally to see if service can be added to those neighborhoods.

"We'll follow whatever course it takes," he said.

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