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Cellphones chime again in tunnels under Hudson

(The following article by Patrick McGeehan was posted on the New York Times website on July 20.)

NEW YORK -- After almost two weeks of enforced silence, commuters can chatter away on their cellphones again as they pass through tunnels under the Hudson River.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey cut off all cellphone service in the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels as a safety precaution immediately after the subway bombings in London on July 7. The Department of Homeland Security raised the threat level for transit systems to high, and Port Authority police officers feared that terrorists might try to use cellphones to detonate bombs in the tunnels.

Richard J. Codey, the acting governor of New Jersey, shared those concerns. But his spokeswoman, Kelley Heck, said yesterday that Mr. Codey approved restoration of the service yesterday after security advisers persuaded him "that the phones could be turned back on and residents would be safe."

Only one other transit agency in the country, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, banned the use of cellphones in tunnels after the London bombings. The authority briefly silenced them in two automobile tunnels under the East River, the Brooklyn-Battery and Queens-Midtown Tunnels.

But after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg publicly questioned the wisdom of leaving drivers and their passengers unable to call for help or report suspicious behavior, the authority restored the service a week ago. Security consultants and cell-phone industry officials also questioned the move, pointing out that the bombs that exploded on a commuter train in Madrid last year were detonated by the alarm clock functions on cellphones, not by placing calls to them. Those alarm clocks would continue to work in a tunnel where there is no phone reception, they said.

Transit officials at first said the New York Police Department had ordered the shutdown, but the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, disputed that account and endorsed the benefits of cellphones in emergencies. Calling the matter a misunderstanding, the transportation authority promptly instructed cell-phone service providers to turn their antennas in the tunnels back on.

But the Port Authority held its ground, suggesting that it would keep the system in the Hudson River tunnels off until the heightened alert for transit systems was called off. The shutdown was easier for the Port Authority to carry out because it controls the switch on antennas it installed in the tunnels for all cellphone users.

Representatives of two cellphone-service providers, Cingular Wireless and Verizon Wireless, said that the Port Authority notified them yesterday afternoon that the service would be restored soon. They declined to say if the Port Authority explained the change.

"We're delighted to be able to serve our customers in these locations again," said Mark Siegel, a spokesman for Cingular.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

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