While riders may desperately want their YouTube videos underground, the real value of such a system is for the business operations of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (the MTA, which operates the NYC subway among other commuter rail and bus systems). Ticketing systems, arrival time indicators, emergency services, and other critical services are all run through this wireless system.
There is in fact a startup working on the problem, Transit Wireless. The company was formed in 2005 to respond to a request for proposals from the MTA and filled with veteran telecom executives. The authority rewarded the contract to Transit Wireless, which now holds a 27-year license to operate cellular service in the subway system.
William Bayne, the CEO of the company, explained that an important component of the contract was that the company couldn’t rely on taxpayer funding. “Our license requires us to design, build, own, operate, and finance the network,” he said.