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Muni signs to go dark on Feb. 22 as supply chain snags prevent critical system upgrade

In an unexpected casualty of Covid supply chain disruption, 753 transit-prediction signs and push-to-talk buttons at bus stops in the city are expected to go offline when AT&T pulls the plug on its 3G network at the end of the month. 

The agency was notified of the outage and began preparing to transition to a network of 4G-enabled signs in April of 2021, according to San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority spokesperson Stephen Chun. The only problem, according to the agency, is that many of the signs won’t arrive before the Feb. 22 outage due to shipping delays.

“We are working hard to make sure that we get the expected equipment in order to upgrade our wayfinding systems on time—well, as close as possible to on time,” SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin said at the agency’s Tuesday board meeting. 

The outage is expected to affect hundreds of displays and push-to-talk buttons in transit shelters, which announce the times displayed on the sign, but predictions available online and on mobile apps should remain available. According to a recent press release, just 150 of the signs have been shipped so far, and none have arrived. The same technical issue affected the agency in 2016 when it updated its system from 2G to 3G, and some signs went offline for months.

Muni’s display signs run on AT&T’s cellular network, which has become more sophisticated in recent years, rendering older systems and the hardware they run on obsolete. AT&T is shutting down its entire 3G service at the end of the month to free up space to expand its 5G network.  

Tumlin said while the agency works to install new 4G signs citywide, it will prioritize stops where buses come less frequently and will also post static signs with QR codes at nearly all stops so riders can quickly access downloadable schedules and other information with their phones. 

The new displays will have LCD screens capable of showing information on multiple routes and in multiple languages. They’ll also have features designed specifically for riders with disabilities. 

The signs are part of a full-system overhaul that’s been in the works since 2017 as the agency rolls out improvements to Muni predictions and a new app. 

At a webinar hosted by Seamless Bay Area on Thursday night, program manager for the SFMTA’s Customer Information System Jason Lee said the new system will focus on improving the accuracy of the agency’s bus and train predictions to cut down on “ghost buses”—those that show up on Muni’s tracking app but never arrive—and make sure that information is getting out to the public.

That includes a new app, which Lee said will soon include a trip planner, real-time status updates and options to buy and store tickets on the cloud.

In an email to The Standard, Chun wrote that the agency expects the new signs and first round of improvements to go live toward the end of the year, with more updates on the way by 2024.