Lamont announces deal with AT&T to improve internet on trains

Photo of Ken Dixon

NORWALK — By the end of the year, the often intermittent internet service for mobile devices on the Metro-North Commuter Railroad may become a nightmare of the past.

Gov. Ned Lamont on Monday announced a partnership with AT&T that will upgrade Internet access on Metro-North commuter trains between New Haven and Greenwich to the industry standard of 4G, and create the infrastructure for the eventual transition to next-generation, high-speed 5G.

During a news conference in the South Norwalk train station, Lamont was joined by AT&T officials and state lawmakers in detailing the deal, in which the telecommunications giant will be granted access to the train line’s right-of-way to erect dozens of 30-foot towers holding small cell nodes over the next year.

“This’ll be one of the first 5G corridors in the country,” said Lamont, who ran for office in 2018 on the promise of fostering the high-speed internet as a way to foster jobs and economic growth. “When it comes to connectivity, right now Connecticut is already one of the most-internet-accessible-connectivity states in the country. We’ve got to do more than that.”

The upgrades will remove dead spots along the nation’s busiest commuter rail line. “I want you to be as incredibly productive as you can,” Lamont said. “By the end of this year, I hope we’re going to have faster service, no more dead zones, easy access. You’ll be able to save time and do a lot of the work you can, from your office right in the train cars going forward, and soon after that we get up to 5G service. This is a way you bring Connecticut’s economy back to life.”

The news conference was held with a backdrop of fewer than a half-dozen protesters who held signs behind the governor’s podium charging that 5G will multiply health risks.

Paska Nayden, an opponent of 5G from Easton, who tried to join reporters in the news conference and directed a question to Joseph Giulietti, commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, said she’s deeply concerned about the possible increase of cancers from the telecom upgrades.

During an interview after the event, Nayden cited a World Health Organization report from 2006 that indicated possible increases in cancers caused by electro-magnetic fields (EMF). State Rep. David Michel, D-Stamford, who is also concerned about possible safety risks, has scheduled a forum on the issue on Jan. 15 in the Ferguson Library in Stamford.

“I have family that travel on the train for work,” Nayden said. “I’ve gotten cancer three times due to environmental factors like EMF. I know that for a fact because I’ve had the genetic testing done. It clearly causes DNA mutations. We’re not anti-technology. I’ve worked in computer rooms forever. Here’s the problem: There are no studies proving that it is safe but there are plenty of studies proving it’s not safe.”

John Emra, president of AT&T Connecticut, called the deal historic. “Anybody who has ever traveled on that train and tried to use any wireless service knows that the service is, at best, spotty,” he said. He declined to detail the cost or installation details, other than to say it’s a multi-million-dollar effort with “many dozens” of cell nodes that will be placed along the rail trains.

“It’s something that certainly commuters and other consumers have complained about for years, and we in the industry have sought to fix, so this is long overdue and we’re very excited about it,” Emra said.

He said the enhanced railroad 4G service is part of AT&T’s existing program bringing 5G to Southwestern Connecticut.

Lamont and Giulietti linked plans for 132 internet-ready rail cars, with his $19-billion transportation-infrastructure plan that includes a dozen highway tolls for large trucks. The issue will be the focus on Tuesday of closed-door House and Senate caucuses in the State Capitol complex. In recent months, majority House Democrats claimed there is enough support for tolls in their caucus, but majority Democrats in the Senate have not had enough support to pass the measure, which is solidly opposed by Republicans.

“We’ve got to speed up the rail service,” Lamont told reporters after the news conference. “We need new rail cars. One of the things new rail cars allow us to do is provide 5G, the fastest internet access in the world right here in the Metro-North corridor.”

Lamont hopes the Tuesday caucuses can lead to full votes in the General Assembly on tolls by the middle of the month. Twitter: @KenDixonCT