Starting today, the Metro will be much more cell-phone friendly. The first stage of a project to expand cell phone service in the Metro system is on the brink of completion.

Only Verizon customers currently get full service in the underground portions of the Metro system, and Sprint customers get service only in certain spots. Clients of other service providers generally get even less, said Steven Taubenkibel, a public affairs specialist from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

The wireless system in the Metro’s tunnels was built in the early 1990s. Taubenkibel said that the original system was owned by Bell Atlantic, but it was later taken over by Verizon, which explains why Verizon customers can already use their phones in most parts of the Metro.

Starting this Friday, almost anyone with a phone will be able to use them in any of Washington’s 20 busiest Metro stations. According to The DCist, a blog about news and the arts in D.C., the expanded cell phone service is part of a $1.5 billion Metro funding package included in Congress’ Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008.

“There was a federal mandate that the entire cellular system has to be completed in 4 years by October 2012, which includes stations and tunnels,” Taubenkibel said.

Taubenkibel added that the first stage of the project is on time to be completed for Friday. The stations that will now have service are: Ballston-MU, Bethesda, Columbia Heights, Crystal City, Dupont Circle, Farragut North, Farragut West, Federal Center SW, Foggy Bottom-GWU, Friendship Heights, Gallery Place-Chinatown, Judiciary Square, McPherson Square, Metro Center, Pentagon, Pentagon City, Rosslyn, Smithsonian, L’Enfant Plaza and Union Station.

“The contract for this first phase of work was awarded back in May to a carrier consortium of AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile,” Taubenkibel said.

According to WMATA, the service will be free, with the only associated fees being those normally imposed by cell phone carriers to make any phone call.

“The new service is for both convenience and safety reasons,” Taubenkibel said. “It is important that everyone has cell phone access no matter what carrier they have.”

Elizabeth Gautier, a spokesperson for AT&T, said that there will be a meeting regarding the new cell phone service tomorrow at the Judiciary Square Metro station, which services the Red line.

“Metro’s board chairman, general manager and chief of network and communication services, and representatives from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless will provide an overview and be available for interviews,” Gautier said.

Gautier added that the service will not be completely available to all 20 stations until the end of the day.

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