More than three years after cellular service became available in parts of the Toronto Transit Commission’s subway, only customers of smaller provider Freedom Mobile can use the service.
BAI Communications Canada won a contract to build the network for the country’s biggest underground transit system and says so far, only Freedom, which is owned by Shaw Communications Inc., has negotiated access for its customers.
None of the dominant wireless carriers – Rogers Communications Inc., BCE Inc. and Telus Corp. – have signed on to give their subscribers service on the subway, which carries about 700,000 passengers on average each weekday, according to the TTC.
Freedom Mobile customers can use cell service to text and make calls at all stations as well as in the tunnel for much of the downtown “loop” portion of the TTC’s Yonge-University line, plus in the tunnel of a recently opened extension to York University in the city’s northwest. WiFi is available to everyone on all subway platforms (users must watch one ad for an hour of access).
Freedom – which operates in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta and has 1.3 million customers, compared to between 9 million and close to 11 million each for the Big Three – started offering cell service on the Toronto subway in 2015. “When we were presented by BAI Canada with the ability to keep customers in touch with friends, family and co-workers we knew we had to participate,” spokesman Chethan Lakshman said.
BCE, the only national carrier to comment in any detail for this story, suggested the reason for its delay is because it wasn’t able to build the underground network itself. BAI, owned by Australia-based BAI Communications, won a contract from the TTC in 2012, agreeing to pay the transit operator $25-million over 20 years for the right to wire up the subway with WiFi and cell service.
“Bell is eager to build high-quality wireless infrastructure to serve customers on the Toronto subway, as we have everywhere else we offer mobile service, but we have been denied access to do so,” BCE spokesman Marc Choma said in a statement, adding that the Canadian regulatory model encourages wireless players to invest in and build their own networks.
He said Montreal was an example of a better approach, where that city’s transit system brought BCE, Rogers, Telus and regional carrier Quebecor Inc.'s Videotron Ltd. together to build the wireless infrastructure. By July, 2017, cell service was available from all four providers through half of the Montreal subway system.
But BAI Canada says it won the contract from the TTC in a fair and open manner and is eager to work with any of the Big Three carriers to offer their customers service.
“It was a very public process, which Bell themselves bid on,” said Ken Ranger, chief executive officer of BAI Canada, said in an interview. “The network is available for them to come on and we would love to have them there.”
He compared the situation to other large public spaces, such as a major mall, where “it doesn’t make a lot of sense to build two, three, four, five networks. It makes more sense to build one network that can host all licensed carriers and that’s what we’ve done in the subway.”
BAI has built connectivity networks for transit systems in other parts of the world, including Hong Kong and New York. In the latter, its subsidiary Transit Wireless provides service and all four major U.S. carriers – AT&T, Verizon, TMobile and Sprint – have signed on.
Mr. Ranger said BAI has had “periodic discussions” with Canada’s Big Three but nothing has led to an agreement.
BCE’s Mr. Choma declined to explain further what he meant by saying his company was “denied access,” but it does not appear the TTC is considering changing its approach to subway connectivity.
“Cell service in subway stations is a convenience we want for our customers. Interested TTC riders should get in touch with their service providers and encourage them to take advantage of the existing infrastructure,” said Hayley Waldman, communications adviser at the TTC. " We prefer not to speculate on what could happen in the future. Right now, BAI has an exclusive contract. "
Telus spokesman Steve Beisswanger said his company “continuously looks for ways to offer its customers the best cellular network access possible,” adding, “at the current time we have no concrete plans to offer cellular service in the Toronto subway system.”
Rogers’s Michelle Kelly also said the company tries to deliver “reliable, consistent" service “and will always look at opportunities to expand our network.” Rogers has offered a similar statement in the past on this issue.