Welcome or Not, Cell Phones Set for Subway

By Ellen Wulfhorst

One of life's ironic oases of solitude -- the peace people find amid the roar of a New York City subway -- could soon be gone.

As New York plans to make cell phones work in subway stations, experts say Americans eventually could be connected everywhere, underground or in the air.

"It's technically feasible, both for airplanes and subways," said James Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "It's the social aspect that's really the most intractable."

People fall into two camps, one that defends the right to make calls no matter the inconvenience to others and the other that likes an undisturbed atmosphere, he said. Business people tend to belong to first camp, and leisure travelers to the second, he added.

Any solitude found waiting for a New York subway is bound to end. City officials have solicited bids to connect more than half the stations for cell phone service, although there's no set timetable yet.

Service through the tunnels is another, more expensive matter, but even the suggestion sends shudders through people who like being incommunicado.

"It's a time when people should unplug," said Jon Giswold, a personal trainer in New York. "I rely on my cell phone, but I find it a safe haven on a train when people can't get a hold of me."

Cell phone service in planes is further off, with the Federal Aviation Administration determining if use in flight would interfere with electronic equipment.

If it's found to be safe, providing service would be up to individual airlines, an FAA spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, most people aren't clamoring for cell phones in the sky.


In seeking public comment last year, the Federal Communications Commission, which deals with if it's technically feasible to operate phones on planes, heard from thousands of people, many of whom focused on passenger "air rage."

"Can you imagine 13 hours to Beijing next to someone on a cell phone?" asked Fern Lowenfels, a Manhattanite walking in the city's Upper West Side.

According to Katz, research shows cell phones become annoying because the human brain is uncomfortable listening to just one half of a conversation. "Without that other part of the conversation, our brain constantly thinks we're being tickled to be involved," he said.

Michael Malice, author of the book "Overheard in New York," said bad cell phone behavior gives him good material.

"It's just tacky and gauche. That's all there is to it," he said. "But most people are tacky and gauche."

The Straphangers Campaign, which represents the interests of city subway riders, is "firmly and resolutely ambivalent," said Gene Russianoff, attorney for the group.

"There's people who want to be permanently wired, and then there's a big contingent that ironically view the one private moment they have during their busy day is on the subways."

Cell phones have gotten a bad reputation -- from being used as detonators in high-profile assassinations to the devices that spread mass insanity in Stephen King's newest horror tale "Cell: A Novel." But, Malice noted, phones are not to blame.

"After September 11, none of us are really in a position to criticize cell phones entirely," he said. "So many people were able to call their families and talk to them one last time.

"If you were trapped and your family was freaking out and you were able to call them, a lot of minds would be put at ease," he said.

Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.

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