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Rogers Communications Inc. has rolled out its high-speed 5G wireless service to its own customers in core parts of Toronto's downtown subway network as it continues to feud with other major carriers over access for all transit riders. People wait on the platform to enter a subway train inside a Toronto Transit Commission station in downtown Toronto on April 1.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

In 2001, the most popular phone in the world was the Nokia 3310. The little grey brick with a monochrome screen let you talk, text and play Snake.

That November, Toronto Transit Commission staff began to investigate whether to install cellphone network access in subway tunnels.

Fast forward to 2023. Mobile devices let users to browse the internet, watch videos and run programs more advanced than those on many desktop computers a generation ago. And starting in October, all TTC riders will finally be able to use their phones underground … for part of the ride.

The speed of technological progress sure is stunning.

As belated as the TTC’s landmark is, it will only be achieved through federal intervention. Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne had to step in last week to break through the impasse that had kept most Toronto cellphone users disconnected.

Ottawa’s intervention is appropriate, but it didn’t need to be this way. Montreal’s subway system, which has been fully wired since 2020, shows a much better route for cities and private partners to work together.

First, some history. According to TTC board reports, the transit authority began to look into allowing cell network access underground in late 2001, a process that would require infrastructure upgrades. After a few years and studies, it determined in March of 2004 that there was no “revenue opportunity” from having cell access in the subway.

That April, the Toronto Police Service piped up to say it “did not support cellular service in the subway as cellphone detonation of bombs was a preferred method of terrorists.” Any more work on the file “was terminated at that time,” a report noted. (A few years later, the police tempered their earlier concerns and said cell access may help TTC riders access emergency services – and terrorists had other ways of setting off explosive devices.)

Meanwhile, other cities started to move forward with cellular service, including Washington and Boston.

In 2008, the TTC released the first in a series of tenders, and in 2012, it awarded a contract to design, build and maintain a cellular network to BAI Communications Canada, then a local subsidiary of an Australian company.

BAI won the contract in part because it offered to pay the TTC a lot more money ($25.5-million) than domestic carriers. BAI’s plan was to build the network and charge major telecom carriers for access to it. “It was waiting to see whether it could secure the unreasonable fees it was demanding from carriers to participate, which was not in the public interest,” says Ellen Murphy, a spokesperson for Bell, which had offered to pay $5.5-million.

The major telecoms said no. Only Freedom, a small discount carrier owned by Shaw, agreed to sign up in 2015.

And so it went for years until this April, when Rogers bought BAI. Within months, the company offered its customers access to a 5G mobile network downtown. Telus and Bell cried foul and the three telecom rivals became mired in disputes over who would have access to the networks when.

Last Monday, Mr. Champagne ordered Rogers to expedite infrastructure upgrades and sharing and that all three carriers had a “collective responsibility” to provide mobile access on the subway.

Collective responsibility is right. Cellular access on a public transit system is a public good. It’s important for safety reasons and it is on public land, where no private company should have a monopoly.

There was another way. In Montreal, STM – which operates the Metro subway system – invited Bell, Rogers, Telus and Videotron to form a consortium in 2013 and the four companies split the $50-million cost. Over the next seven years, cellular access came online in stages. By December of 2020, all 68 stations and 71 kilometres of track were fully connected for customers of all four carriers.

The consortium model allowed for the “optimal quality of service” for STM riders, attracted significant capital investment and guaranteed the presence of all major providers, according to Telus, which led the project.

The telecom industry has a track record of rivalry. Toronto created the conditions for those players to turn on each other, to the detriment of customers. Montreal, however, created a framework in which the private sector’s energies could be channelled for the benefit of all. Other cities should take note.

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