Toronto

Cell service is expanding on the TTC. Here's why you may not be able to use it

A system to provide uninterrupted cellular and Wi-Fi service for those riding on TTC trains is coming, but major cellphone companies don't want to sign on.

Big telcos would rather install their own wireless infrastructure in the subway

A last check for messages by a TTC rider before she steps aboard a train and loses connectivity. BAI is installing infrastructure to provide cellular coverage throughout the subway system. (CBC)

Cellular service is coming to a big stretch of the subway system, but if you're a customer of the big telecom providers you won't be able to use it because they would rather install their own infrastructure underground.

Ken Ranger, CEO of BAI Communications Canada, says for the past two years the company has been installing antennas along subway tunnels and a big expansion is planned this month as the system in the lower "U" portion of the line south of Bloor goes live.

But so far, only one service provider has signed on to the BAI network. 

Ken Ranger, CEO of BAI Canada, says the finishing touches are being put on the system that will allow cellular service on the subway from St. George to Bloor/Yonge station. (John Lesavage/CBC)

"To date, unlike our New York office where we have Verizon-AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, here in Toronto only Freedom Mobile has taken us up on the offer," Ranger told CBC News in an interview.

Bell and Rogers have both told CBC Toronto they would prefer to install their own systems.

Margaret Ghan, who works in the financial district, says other big-city subway systems are far ahead of Toronto in getting on board with blanket mobile service. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

Margaret Ghan, who works in Toronto's financial district, is frustrated that the TTC is lagging behind other major transit systems when it comes to connectivity underground.

"I know in other countries ... I'm pretty sure you have Wi-Fi throughout — so why not here?" Ghan asked.

She adds customers who want to stay connected to the world should have the option to stay in touch for business or with friends and family while travelling underground.

Ranger agrees.

"It's not just for the sake of connectivity, but for safety, for letting people know and just for a general sense of feeling OK," he said.

"In 2019, it's very difficult not to be able to access information when you need it on demand."

He says during a service disruption, riders want to know about delays and let loved ones know they are running late.

Cellular antennas being installed on a tunnel wall in the subway south of Bloor. Rogers and Bell won't sign on to BAI Canada's infrastructure, saying they would like to install their own infrastructure. (supplied)

BAI is also the company that installed the TConnect Wi-Fi system in stations and Ranger says the tunnel antennas started going in shortly after the station Wi-Fi transmitters were completed.

"There's actually very little work left to do. There's some commissioning and testing work," said Ranger, adding that BAI crews must work overnight around the TTC train signal upgrades being done at the same time.

Brad Poulos, of the Entrepreneurship Department at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, says time unconnected while on the subway is likely resulting in lost productivity.

"For sure, there's thousands and thousands of people losing perhaps up to a half hour or more a day of productivity. So it's going to be in there many, many millions maybe hundreds of millions of dollars," said Poulos.

Big carriers refuse to activate cellular infrastructure

Telus didn't respond to CBC's request for comment, but Bell and Rogers say they would like to offer their customers service in the subway.

"Bell and other Canadian carriers look forward to building the wireless infrastructure required to serve customers in the Toronto subway system, but we have been denied access to do so," a statement from Bell reads.

According to a spokesperson, Rogers is looking at opportunities to expand their network but would prefer partnering with other service providers to put their own cellular network in the subway.

Brad Poulos, a lecturer in the Entrepreneurship Department at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, says lack of connectivity on the subway means a significant loss of productivity. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

But Ranger says having BAI as the neutral party working directly with carriers to add their services to the network and handling technical logistics has worked in Hong Kong and New York City.

"As an operator, I can understand wanting to own my own infrastructure. However all four of them can't build their own separate infrastructure," he said, adding there's limited space in the tunnels, which means concerns about access and safety.

TTC spokesperson Stuart Green says BAI Canada was awarded the contract for Wi-Fi and cellular service in the subway in 2012 after an exhaustive and transparent tender process. BAI is paying the TTC $25 million over 20 years for the exclusive right to build and operate the system.

"All carriers have the option to take advantage of the existing infrastructure and we strongly encourage them to do so," Green said.

Ryerson's Poulos says it doesn't make economic sense for each individual carrier to install their own cellular infrastructure underground.

"Think of the disruption to the system of doing all of this installation four times rather than once," he said.

"It makes perfect sense for the carriers to ultimately come on and I think they will."

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him @CBCPLS.

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