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NYC flips the cell switch for (some) subway stations

New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority plans to roll out cellular service to an additional 30 subway stations over the next 12 months.

A T-Mobile BlackBerry with full bars in the Chelsea A-C-E subway station on 14th Street in Manhattan. Roger Cheng/CNET

The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority turned on wireless service in four subway stations in Manhattan Tuesday, marking the first time a straphanger could reliably use his or her cell phone while waiting for their train.

As previously reported, service was turned on at four stations: the C and E platforms at 23rd Street and Eight Avenue; the A, C, E and L platforms on 14th Street and Eighth Avenue; the F, M, and L platforms at the Avenue of the Americas and 14th Street; and the 1, 2 and 3 platforms at the Seventh Avenue station, also on 14th Street.

AT&T and T-Mobile customers are the only ones to get service down in those stations, so Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel subscribers will still have to wait longer.

MTA official Carmen Bianco speaking at a press conference in the Chelsea A,C and E station on 14th Street in Manhattan. Roger Cheng/CNET

"This is just the beginning," said Carmen Bianco, senior vice president of subway operations for the MTA, during a press conference today at the Chelsea subway station on 14th Street.

The MTA plans to expand coverage to 30 additional subway stations, including a few hubs, over the next 12 months, Bianco said. The plan is to cover all of the stations in New York over the next four years. The total projected cost: $100 million to $200 million.

"When I'm going from point A to point B, it'll be nice to make sure I'm going the right way, since I'm not from the city," said Jessica Beuffkin, who recently moved from Texas to Manhattan for an internship at Seventeen. "It'll be nice to use the Internet for work too."

Beuffkin uses an iPhone 3GS with AT&T, and noted that she got full signal strength today, something that wasn't available before.

While New York is just getting cellular service, the same capabilities have been available in other cities including San Francisco and Boston. New York's system, however, is complicated because it is older, larger, and runs 24 hours, said Bill Bayne, chief executive of Transit Wireless, the company responsible for building the wireless infrastructure in the stations.

In addition to the convenience of having service, the ability to make emergency phone calls is another key benefited, Bayne said.

"For those of you who see something, down here we can enable you to say something," he said.

Executives from AT&T and T-Mobile were also on hand to help show off the service.

"New York is T-Mobile's most important market," said Terry Hayes, vice president and general manager of New York City. "We spend more here than anywhere else in the U.S."

AT&T's Mike Maus, vice president of network engineering, said the service was "another example of our dedication to New York City."

AT&T, T-Mobile and Wireless Transit are splitting the cost, although the exact breakdown was not disclosed.

Bianco said the MTA was still in talks with Verizon Wireless and Sprint to get their services in the station. But he added he couldn't say when the other carriers would be able to get signal in the subway.

Updated at 11:52 a.m. PT: to include details of Beuffkin's phone and carrier.