The Policy Corner with Noah Lee: Cell service finally arrives in the TTC Subway

As the government steps up, telecommunication companies must comply

Image supplied by: Noah Lee
Liberals search for votes in Atlantic Canada.

Rejoice residents and tourists of Toronto, you will now be able to call your grandma on the subway.

For as long as I can remember, going down into the TTC subway was equivalent to entering a proverbial twilight zone. With the TTC set to grant cellular and data services to riders on Oct. 3, this proverb is now set to turn to myth.

The Federal Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry, François-Philippe Champagne announced this move on Sept. 11.

Mobile carriers will be required to provide cell service to subway users. Failure to comply with this demand will result in carriers being penalized monetarily or by revocation of their spectrum license, which permits carriers to provide cell service using frequencies.

While this change may seem long overdue, the delay isn’t for lack of trying. As early as 2018 over 75 km of fiber-optic cables were installed by BAI Communications Inc. along the TTC subway tunnels. The problem was Freedom Mobile was the only telecommunications company to sign on to the network built by BAI, while Bell, Telus, and Rogers refused.

The rationale behind the refusal from Bell, Rogers, and Telus to use BAI’s network was that the three carriers believed it was too “antiquated” and therefore wouldn’t be able to facilitate the level of service expected by their customers.

One might ask why a consortium of the big three carriers didn’t just set out to build the network themselves. While the big three submitted a bid of just $5.4 million for the contract back in 2012, BAI made a bid of $25 million.

BAI reported a total annual income upwards of $100 million in 2022-23. In the same operating year Bell reported net earnings of nearly $3 billion.

Bell alone has always been an industry titan, and a consortium of Bell, Rogers, and Telus is like the Mount Olympus of telecommunications. The notion they couldn’t cough up the money to outbid a foreign company like BAI is absurd.

This past April, BAI sold its Canadian business—including its TTC network—to Rogers, who to their credit, began upgrading the cable infrastructure. Even then, it turned out that Rogers was interested in keeping the network only accessible to their customers, prompting outcry from other carriers. It was like witnessing a bunch of kids fighting over toys in a sandbox.

What we have here is an example of when government intervention is a good idea—the carriers had their chance to sort it out amongst themselves over the summer instead of delaying cell phone access into the fall.

With growing safety and security concerns on the TTC subway over the past year, now’s probably as good a time as ever to introduce universal cell and data coverage down in the tunnels.

As a believer in letting the market decide for itself, I’m all for having less government involvement when and where possible, but the cell service carrier cabal we have in Canada is ridiculous. I’m sure Torontonians are happy to hear the twilight zone of cell service is finally coming to an end.


Column, federal government, Technology, telecommunications, TTC

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