The head of Toronto’s transit service said he is “trying to shame” Canada’s three major telecommunications companies into urgently providing cellphone service throughout the subway system in the wake of increasing safety concerns.
Toronto Transit Commission CEO Rick Leary told city councillors Thursday that the agency has been trying for more than a decade to introduce mobile phone service across the system, but there has been little interest from Rogers Communications Inc., Bell Canada or Telus Communications Inc.
However, talks with the companies have been renewed by recent concerns about public safety on the transit system, fuelled by several high-profile incidents of violence. Mr. Leary expects to provide the TTC board with an update in May, though he didn’t provide specifics.
“We’re in discussions with them right now trying to shame them to get in here,” Mr. Leary told council. “Because of the social issue that’s happening, the security issue, there seems to be more of an interest.”
Council voted to back the TTC’s push and pressure all cellphone providers to offer coverage on the subway system as soon as possible.
City leaders and police officials have been grappling for months on how to improve safety on the transit system following a spate of violent crimes. On Saturday, 16-year-old Gabriel Magalhaes was stabbed and killed while sitting on a bench at Keele Station in the city’s west end, which police said was an unprovoked attack.
The issue of cell service in the subway system dates back 11 years, when the TTC issued a $25-million contract to BAI Communications Inc. to install a cellular network across the system. The three telecommunications companies refused to use it at the time, Mr. Leary said.
Freedom Mobile is the only service provider that uses the network, with cellular service available at all underground subway platforms, and in tunnels in a portion of the downtown core. Wireless internet is set up at all TTC stations but not available between stations. Emergency calls can be made to 9-1-1 on any network, but only in certain parts of the subway tunnels on Line 1 in the downtown core and between Downsview and Vaughan Metropolitan Centre.
Preliminary talks with the major service providers have focused on the possibility of the technology needing to be updated and the potential costs.
Rogers spokesman Cam Gordon said in a statement that cellular access plays an important role in public safety and the company is “committed to being part of the solution.”
Bell spokeswoman Ellen Murphy said in a statement that the company supports expanding cell service along the subway system but that the exclusive deal with BAI “won’t provide the service that TTC passengers need and deserve.”
Telus did not respond to a request for comment.
Deputy mayor Jennifer McKelvie said cellular service is one aspect of improving safety and also called for help from the provincial and federal governments to increase supports for mental health, addictions and homelessness. She reiterated her disappointment with Tuesday’s federal budget, which she said “fell flat” in providing needed help for municipalities still grappling to overcome the financial hit of the COVID-19 pandemic. Toronto faced a $454-million budget hole in 2022 that is being covered by dipping into its reserve and pausing capital projects.
“As a parent, to be worried about your children getting on transit, that’s unacceptable,” Ms. McKelvie said. “We know we need to do more, we can do more.”
Premier Doug Ford, speaking at an unrelated announcement in Hamilton, called for more police “boots on the ground” across Toronto’s transit network to respond to the safety challenges. At the same time, in responding to the city’s request for more funding from the province, he said council needs to be “prudent fiscal managers.”
Toronto police added more than 80 overtime officers across to the transit system in late January, but those shifts ended two weeks ago and cost about $1.5-million monthly.
Added temporary measures from the TTC set to end April 30, including 50 security guards and 20 community safety ambassadors, are being considered for an extension.
With a report from Laura Stone