Wind Mobile Corp. has struck an exclusive one-year deal to bring cellular service to its customers who use the downtown, underground portions of Toronto's subway.
The wireless carrier announced the move, which could be a selling point to attract new subscribers, during a news conference Wednesday morning with Toronto Mayor John Tory at the St. George subway station.
Wind is the first wireless carrier to sign a deal with BAI Canada, which won a contract in 2012 from the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to implement cellphone and WiFi coverage in the subway system. To date, BAI has deployed an ad-supported free WiFi service at a number of downtown subway stations, leaving many transit riders frustrated that they still cannot use cellular service to make calls and send text messages during their commutes.
Wind said it will take advantage of BAI's infrastructure, which now offers connectivity on 18 platforms at a total of 15 subway stations in the downtown lower loop of the Toronto subway system. The carrier said cell service was live on Wednesday at three stations – St. George, Bay and Bloor-Yonge – and additional stations would come on line during this summer's Pan American Games.
Riders still will not have either WiFi or cellular coverage throughout the subway tunnels, which will eventually be added as BAI expands its network over the next few years.
Mr. Tory and TTC chair Josh Colle said they hoped Wind's move would put pressure on other carriers to sign on with BAI to offer cellular service in subway stations.
Five-year-old Wind serves a small number of customers compared with the dominant carriers, Rogers Communications Inc., Telus Corp. and BCE Inc. As of December, Wind had 800,000 customers in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, while the big three together serve about 26 million wireless subscribers nationwide.
"The competition will cause the other companies to be here," Mr. Tory said. "There's not much in it for them in terms of additional revenue … so they resist it as long as they can. But when somebody else takes the first step, as Wind has today with BAI, they will be here, because it's a matter of customer service."
But Wind chief executive officer Alek Krstajic said in an interview that his company negotiated the right to be the exclusive cellular provider for the TTC for one year. He added that other carriers could negotiate the right to roam on Wind's network if they want to offer their customers service sooner.
"Rogers, Bell and Telus could have come on some time ago, but they chose not to, full stop," Mr. Krstajic said at the news conference, adding that based on his previous experience as one-time president of Bell Mobility, "I can tell you large companies sometimes have a tough time doing innovative things."
"They have all the customers already, and they don't feel the need to … deal with BAI, which is wiring up the TTC," Mr. Krstajic added. "My prediction is that Rogers, Bell and Telus will actually come on this network very quickly. If they don't, I'm going to be very, very happy for quite a while."
Asked Wednesday about plans to launch cellular service on the Toronto subway, spokesman Aaron Lazarus said Rogers is in the process of "building capability for cellular service within the new Union Station."
"We're open to any further agreement that would not add additional costs to deploying a wireless system in the TTC and would ensure the necessary technical standards are met so consumers get the high-quality service they expect," he added.
Spokesmen for BCE and Telus declined to comment. (BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.)
BAI is paying the transit authority $25-million for its 20-year deal. It earns money through ads displayed to users before they connect, and carrier agreements such as the deal with Wind (the financial terms were not disclosed) are another source of revenue.
BAI is part of the Broadcast Australia group of companies, but is 100-per-cent owned by Canadian pension funds. BAI Canada's sister companies have implemented wireless services for transit systems in cities such as Hong Kong, New York and Singapore.
In Montreal, the Big Three wireless providers, along with Videotron Ltd. – which is the fourth largest carrier in Quebec – announced a partnership with the Societé de transport de Montréal (STM) in November, 2014, with plans to bring cellular service to the city's underground subway line in five phases over five to seven years.
In that case, the four telecom players said they were equally sharing the cost of a $50-million investment to deploy the wireless network while Telus was responsible for the actual implementation.
Telus also launched a pilot project last summer testing free public WiFi on three Vancouver bus routes.