Industry minister asks telecoms for cell service agreement outline in Toronto subway

Canada’s industry minister is calling on the country’s major telecom companies to come to an agreement over wireless service in Toronto’s subway system.

In a letter on Twitter, Francois-Philippe Champagne said he has taken note of Rogers Communications Inc.’s recent announcement that it’s buying the company that owns the wireless network in the Toronto Transit Commission subway system.

The letter addressed to executives of Bell Canada, Telus Communications Inc., Quebecor Inc. and Rogers said arrangements are still not in place to ensure service is available to customers who are with a service other than Rogers.

Champagne said he wants the telecom companies to rectify the situation with urgency to reach agreements that would allow any company to access the TTC network.

Read more: Rogers to acquire TTC wireless network, bring 5G to Toronto subway system

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He requested that the companies respond to his letter within 30 days detailing their respective statuses on the issue, as well as outlining a joint plan to offer mobile service to all customers.

BAI Communications Inc. won the contract to build and operate the TTC’s public Wi-Fi and cellular network in 2012, but only Freedom Mobile signed on to provide coverage to its customers through BAI’s network.

While customers not with Freedom have been unable to use BAI’s network other than for 911 emergency calling for more than a decade, calls to make the system work for all Torontonians have surfaced after a spate of violent incidents on the TTC system.

As a condition of Rogers’ $26-billion purchase of Shaw Communications Inc., Quebecor acquired Freedom Mobile from Shaw.

Rogers has said it will upgrade the existing network, which covers abound a quarter of the subway’s underground tunnels, and will also build a 5G network for the entire system in around two years.

Click to play video: 'Rogers to provide cell service in TTC subways'

Rogers to provide cell service in TTC subways

Rogers president and CEO Tony Staffieri said last week that his company would not attempt to prevent any of the other telecom companies from offering service to their customers on Toronto’s subway system once Rogers takes control of the infrastructure.

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“Rogers is committed to provide access to all TTC riders, and that’s why we took action and stepped up to acquire BAI Canada to modernize this critical network and open up access for all riders,” Rogers spokesman Cam Gordon said in a statement on Wednesday.

“As we have said from the outset, we are committed to working with all carriers.”

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Bell president and CEO Mirko Bibic responded to Champagne in his own letter on Wednesday evening. He told the minister that the company would only take part in the network if it has a chance to help build it with the other carriers, rather than have to pay access fees to Rogers in order to use the infrastructure.

“It is astounding that this important project would be awarded to one party without a transparent open-bid process,” wrote Bibic, who stated Bell has urged the TTC to require Rogers to implement a joint-build model.

“We have also written to the CEO of Rogers asking for confirmation that Rogers will adopt the proven open access, joint build approach that has been a success in other major transit projects. We have not received a response.”

Bibic told Champagne that Bell and Telus have jointly offered to acquire the BAI contract if Rogers won’t agree to that model on its own. The offer includes a $10 million direct payment to the TTC for discretionary projects like transit safety improvements.

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Click to play video: 'Concerns raised over lack of cell service on Toronto subways'

Concerns raised over lack of cell service on Toronto subways

If Rogers neither invites its rivals to participate in a joint build, nor agrees to sell the contract, Bibic said Ottawa and the CRTC should compel Rogers to implement the joint-build model.

“It is clear that Bell is prepared to step up to fund its portion of a state-of-the-art wireless network to serve all TTC commuters,” he wrote.

Richard Gilhooley, a spokesman for Telus, said it agreed with Champagne that users of the TTC deserve to have the same world-class wireless connectivity below ground as they do on the streets of Toronto.

“Telus continues to believe that a consortium approach to building the TTC network is the best way to ensure that redundancies are in place to allow for continuity of service in the event that one carrier suffers a network outage,” Gilhooley said in an email.

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“This approach was applied during the construction of the network for the STM in Montreal and provided a great outcome for Montrealers.”

Gilhooley said having multiple carriers operating their own equipment on the network means less congestion, a more resilient network, and a better overall customer experience.

Read more: What to know about the TTC’s upcoming Rogers cellphone network

Quebecor said it has received Champagne’s letter and wants to assure Toronto residents that it will maintain services in the subway system where Freedom is currently the only telecom provider.

“Providing quality services to commuters and to our customers, as Freedom has been doing for many years in Toronto, mirrors our philosophy and business plan at Videotron and at Quebecor,” the company said in an email.

“We will continue in this direction, with as much enthusiasm as ever in this competitive environment, to give Canadians more choice at more reasonable prices.”

Speaking in Toronto last week, Staffieri promised the network “will work for everybody.”

One of Rogers’ priorities is to ensure 911 emergency calling is available throughout the subway system, and not just the portion currently covered by BAI’s infrastructure.

“We really need to figure out and implement on a timely basis 911 emergency calling throughout the subway transit system and it doesn’t matter who you’re on. It could be us, Bell, Telus, Videotron — it doesn’t matter,” Staffieri said.

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“We think it’s important for not just our customers but for Torontonians and that was our intent in doing this. If Bell, Telus want to step up and join in, we’re happy and open to having those discussions with them.”

Champagne’s letter asked the telecoms to include in their plan consideration of 988 calling once Canada’s new suicide crisis line number is operational so that TTC riders can access the line.

Rogers has said talks with BAI began around a year ago.

— With files from Sammy Hudes

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