HOUSTON -- Under the streets of downtown Houston sits a thriving city within the city, a network of brightly lit pedestrian tunnels linking dozens of skyscrapers, theaters, entertainment complexes and parking lots.
Downtown workers walking between buildings stroll past restaurants and boutiques that look like attractions from a shopping mall. Upscale food courts sit next to fancy restaurants just around the corner from an optometrist and a hair stylist.
But sometimes, one modern amenity is hard to find beneath the streets of Houston. The tunnel system is a lousy place to make a cell phone call.
“You just get, you know, these little bars,” said Patricia Davis, a downtown office worker, who lunches in the tunnels almost every day, but seldom bothers bringing her cell phone. “You get either zero, or maybe one, (bar) blinking on and off.”
Just a few feet away from where she sits, other diners were having better luck. But the cell phone coverage in the tunnel system that hosts an estimated 70,000 to 90,000 people a day is spotty at best. Mostly, it just doesn’t work.
“The signal is blocked down here in the tunnel,” said Chuck Jackson, the operations director for the Houston Downtown Management District. “And that’s our biggest problem.”
Now it seems one of the most annoying cell phone dead zones in Houston will finally buzz with conversation next year. City officials are putting the final touches on a deal that will extend consistent and reliable service to pedestrians in Houston’s downtown system.
“There will be boosters throughout the entire tunnel system,” Jackson said. “Verizon is taking the lead in coordinating everyone else to be able to install this.”
The deal has been discussed for years, but negotiating between all the companies and agencies involved has been a complicated task. That’s largely because nobody exerts sole control over the tunnel system.
The downtown tunnel network links 59 buildings, passing beneath private property and public streets. Each section of the tunnel is owned by whoever owns the land above it. So any agreement involving the entire tunnel system requires the consent of dozens of property owners as well as the city government, which controls the tunnel areas beneath streets and sidewalks.
Fixing the cell phone network is an idea that blossomed from the city government’s ambitious plan to patch gaps in the radio network used by police and firefighters. City officials hope to spend about $138 million shifting to an entirely new radio system that will cover almost all of the Houston area and allow officers from various law enforcement agencies to communicate with each other.
The plan to install radio repeaters and cell phone antennae in the downtown tunnels is expected to cost less than $300,000, city officials say. Jackson says private phone carriers are picking up the cost of the cell phone system.
“There’s a lot of concern,” Jackson says. “Naturally, there’s crime. If there’s something that happens down in the tunnel, you want the police to be able to respond as quickly as possible.”
Downtown workers like Patricia Davis should have no problem phoning their friends by this time next summer.
“That’s awesome because you know you like to talk on your phone at lunch,” she said.