Rogers Communications Inc. RCI-B-T has proposed a framework to Ottawa that would see the telecom enter into arbitration with BCE Inc., Telus Corp. and Quebecor Inc. if it is unable to reach commercial agreements with at least one of those carriers by Aug. 15 regarding access to its wireless network on Toronto’s subway system.
BCE BCE-T and Telus T-T have been pressing federal Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne to help them secure a commitment from Rogers that their customers will be allowed onto the network concurrently with Rogers customers.
The rival telecoms, which have been advocating for a joint build model in which all carriers own a stake in the network, are concerned that Rogers is attempting to gain a commercial advantage by delaying access to the network for non-Rogers customers for a period of time.
The dispute over cellphone service on the subway system in Canada’s most populous city marks an escalation in tensions between Canada’s major telecoms that began during the protracted regulatory review of Rogers’s recently completed $20-billion takeover of Shaw Communications Inc.
Under the framework that Rogers has proposed, the timing of access, the costs and the technical specifications for the upgraded network that Rogers is planning to build would be worked out during commercial negotiations between the carriers.
“Rogers will engage in good faith commercial negotiations with the other carriers with a view to reaching a reasonable commercial agreement by Aug. 15, 2023,” reads a May 23 letter to Mr. Champagne obtained by The Globe and Mail.
The letter, which is signed by Rogers CEO Tony Staffieri, goes on to say that if Rogers is unable to reach a deal with “one or more carriers” by that date, it is willing to enter into arbitration under Industry Canada’s Arbitration Rules and Procedures. That process could take up to 85 days.
Mr. Staffieri writes that the arbitration process should reflect the Toronto-based telecom’s investment in acquiring BAI Canada Inc., the Canadian branch of an Australian telecommunications infrastructure company with the sole right to develop wireless infrastructure inside Toronto Transit Commission tunnels, and upgrading the network.
The process should also reflect “Rogers’ leadership in unlocking the stalemate that was caused by the original BAI Canada and TTC agreement,” the letter reads.
Rogers acquired BAI for an undisclosed amount in April. Currently, only customers of Freedom Mobile, now part of Quebecor’s Videotron Ltd., have access to the network; Rogers, Telus and BCE never signed on to offer wireless services on the Toronto subway through BAI, which was awarded the contract to build the network by the TTC in 2012.
Back in mid-April, Mr. Champagne asked the carriers to provide him with an update on their negotiations within 30 days. The minister’s request followed a string of violent attacks on the transit system, which sparked calls for the major wireless carriers to offer cellphone service inside the subway as a safety measure.
Rogers has vowed to expand the existing network, which only covers station platforms, concourses and about a quarter of the tunnels with third-generation and fourth-generation wireless technology, and upgrade it to 5G within two years.
“Given the state of the legacy system, we need to upgrade the distributed antenna system and the carrier base stations so that the network will support multiple operators and multiple frequencies,” the letter reads. “Once those upgrades are complete, we will be capable of onboarding our own customers and those of other carriers.”
However, BCE and Telus are concerned that Rogers will give its own customers access to the network before the negotiations or arbitration process is complete, according to a source familiar with the discussions. The Globe is not identifying the person because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Richard Gilhooley, a spokesperson for Telus, said the telecom is ready to connect its customers to the network, but “despite repeated attempts by Telus and others to engage with Rogers to determine the method by which all carriers could access the system, they have not supplied commercial terms or technical details.”
“While we received Rogers’s proposed framework weeks ago, no negotiations of any substance have taken place since,” Mr. Gilhooley said. “We respectfully suggest that Rogers do the right thing and undertake good faith negotiations so we can all deliver the best solution for Torontonians.”
Rogers, meanwhile accused BCE and Telus of mischaracterizing Rogers’s commitment to modernizing and expanding the network in order to be able to provide service to all carriers’ customers.
“We’ve proposed a fair and reasonable framework for all carriers to join the network with a dispute resolution process if we can’t work out a deal in a timely way. It’s time they stop delaying so we can get a deal done to benefit all TTC riders,” Rogers spokesperson Cam Gordon said in an e-mail.
Véronique Mercier, a spokesperson for Quebecor QBR-B-T, which recently acquired Freedom Mobile, said the carrier’s contract with BAI will ensure that Freedom is able to keep offering service in the subway system.
“While it’s not surprising that Bell itself has been stonewalling the process for weeks and blaming others, as they always do, Freedom will be discussing improvements to the TTC wireless infrastructure with Rogers and we are confident those talks will be productive,” Ms. Mercier said in an e-mail.
BCE said that although cell service on the TTC is a “public good,” the framework that Rogers has proposed does not ensure concurrent access for all customers, regardless of carrier.
“The only party delaying open access for all wireless customers is Rogers,” BCE spokesperson Ellen Murphy said in an e-mail.
“Despite repeated requests, Rogers refuses to do a joint build on a cost share basis, they continue to withhold engineering plans and they have not agreed that all wireless carriers should get access to serve their customers at the same time. Instead, they want to be the gatekeeper that decides which carriers get access, when access will begin, and how much they will charge for access if and when they decide to grant it,” she added.