CTA subway

Riders on CTA Red and Blue Line subways will see upgraded 4G wireless service next year, the agency will announce on Thursday. (Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune / August 1, 2013)

CTA riders who complain about spotty wireless service in the subways will have something positive to talk and text about next year when the Red Line and Blue Line tunnels are upgraded to 4G service, transit officials are set to announce Thursday.

The CTA has tentatively awarded a contract worth roughly $19 million, pending approval by the CTA board next week, to Aldridge Electric Inc. to expand wireless service from the 2G technology installed in 2005. That was before many smartphones, tablets and social networks were introduced.

The new 4G network will increase the speed and reliability of wireless carriers, officials said. The goals are to make commuters' rides more enjoyable and, more important, to provide more robust communications between CTA employees and first responders in emergencies, they added.

Work to improve voice and data transmission will begin in November, and it is scheduled for completion in phases — first on the Blue Line next spring and then on the Red Line late next year, CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said.

During the 12-month project, the existing wireless network will continue to run, she said.

The contract with Aldridge, based in Libertyville, is a key part of a $27 million project to improve the subway cellular network, consisting of about 111/2 miles of underground passage on the Blue and Red lines. The network, which the CTA licenses to six wireless service providers, generates $1.8 million a year to the transit agency, officials said.

Aldridge will use the CTA's existing fiber-optic cable, power sources and other equipment to minimize the upgrade's cost, officials said.

The transit agency hopes to partner with companies to help pay for all or part of the $27 million project, officials said.

Meanwhile, Metra is still plodding along on a yearslong search to add wireless Internet access to its trains. The nation's second-largest commuter railroad has been unable to find investors willing to pick up the cost of installing the equipment.

jhilkevitch@tribune.com

Twitter @jhilkevitch