Free WiFi will be available at two Toronto subway stations starting Monday, a program that the TTC hopes will become system-wide within the next few years.
Subway riders at Bloor-Yonge and St. George stations will now able to connect to the Internet on the subway platform, ticket area and mezzanine levels of the station. But cellphone service in stations will still not be available, and neither will WiFi in tunnels between stations – with no word yet on when that might change.
BAI Canada paid the TTC $25-million for a 20-year contract to build a WiFi network for Toronto’s subway. WiFi at the first two stations is still in the testing phase, but after it launches permanently next month, the company is hoping to bring the service to more stations.
“We just need to make sure that the WiFi itself and the band that it’s using does not interfere with our radio systems, with our signalling systems that could be safety-critical,” said TTC spokesman Brad Ross, “We don’t anticipate there being issues – these things are figured out before they’re installed and run – but we still need to do that testing.”
He said that BAI is currently mapping out a schedule for building the same infrastructure for the rest of the subway stations over the next couple of years.
In order to connect to the free WiFi, riders will have to watch short, 15-second advertisements beforehand, said Mr. Ross. There will also be ads on the network to help support and pay for the service. All ads will be subject to the TTC’s advertising policy.
The agreement with BAI also gives the company two years to secure a cellphone provider to potentially also bring cell service to subway stations. The infrastructure for cell service at the two prototype stations is already built, but as of yet, no cell provider has come on board.
Also unknown is when WiFi and cell service will be available on subway trains between station.
Mr. Ross said that there’s not yet a timeline for making that happen. Installing the infrastructure for WiFi and cell service in the tunnels requires access to those tunnels, and right now, tunnel time is “precious,” he said.
“At the TTC, there’s significant maintenance programs that are in place right now that we need to keep the system operating safely and normally. To give up that time for installation of wi-fi isn’t a priority at this point.”
BAI Canada is a subsidiary of the BAI Group, which is partly owned by the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. The company has previously installed WiFi networks in New York’s MTA and the Hong Kong Metro.
WiFi and transit across the world
Montreal’s métro announced in September plans to build a $50-million underground mobile network, which would give riders cellphone reception and access to a 4G LTE mobile network in all stations and tunnels. The plan, which is being paid for by a group of telecom companies, including Bell, Telus and Rogers, is expected to be in place within seven years.
The London Underground, the world’s oldest subway system, launched WiFi in stations right before the 2012 Olympics, and in partnership with Virgin Media. WiFi, which non-Virgin subscribers pay for access to, is currently only available at select stations, but is expected to be available at all of over 270 tube stations by 2015.
The Paris Métro announced in 2012 that riders would have access to free Wi-Fi at most stations, thanks to Spanish telecom and WiFi provider Gowex. The company also provides free WiFi on buses, and in public spaces like squares and parks.
Transit Wireless, a subsidiary of BAI Group, already provides WiFi and cellphone service at dozens of New York MTA stations, and there are plans in the works to expand that to all of MTA’s 468 subway stations.
Hong Kong’s MTR introduced free WiFi in every subway station earlier this year. Riders can connect to the network for 15 minutes at a time, for a maximum of 5 sessions per day.