Why is there no cell service on the TTC? Riders say it could increase safety
The Toronto Transit Commission signed a deal in 2012 to provide cellular service on the subway network, but over a decade later, few are able to make a call in an emergency—something the TTC board members, riders and parents say has to change in the wake of the death of Gabriel Magalhaes.
"I cannot fathom why we do not have cell service on the subway system," Toronto Councillor Chris Moise, who sits on the TTC Board of Commissioners, said Wednesday.
Why is hard to answer, depending on who you ask.
BAI Communications Inc. was awarded the contract in 2012, paying the TTC $25 million for the exclusive rights to build cellular signal and WIFI infrastructure along subway tunnels and inside stations for 20 years.
A consortium of Canadian carriers including Bell, Rogers and Telus submitted a bid for $5.4 million. In a 2012 report to the TTC board, the commission recommended the BAI bid "to further enhance the transit experience of TTC’s customers and to receive much needed revenue."
By 2018, over 75 km of fiber-optic cables were installed along subway tunnels, which now potentially allows users to make calls or answer text messages on the network at any subway station, in the tunnels for the downtown U—stations between Spadina and Bloor-Yonge—as well as between Sheppard West and Vaughan Metropolitan Centre Stations. However, only Freedom Mobile has signed on, while Canada's three largest carriers have refused to pay BAI to offer their customers the ability to use its subway cellular network.
City Councillor Paul Ainslie has been looking for answers since being appointed to the board. He sent a memo last December to TTC CEO Rick Leary, as well as former Toronto Mayor John Tory, and says he has also been speaking to the so-called "Big Three" telecom companies.
"Their big hang-up is not so much that they don't want to sign on, is that the technology is so antiquated they wouldn't be able to give the service to their customers that the customers would expect," he said in an interview with CTV News Toronto.
Bell said similarly when asked for comment.
“BAI’s 20-year, exclusive arrangement with the TTC prevents Bell and others from installing their own network infrastructure anywhere on the TTC subway system. The BAI infrastructure is outdated, and only installed in a small fraction of the TTC tunnels," company spokesperson Ellen Murphy said in an email. "We would like the opportunity to provide TTC riders with the connectivity experience that they’re envisioning when they call for cell service on the TTC."
Bell is the parent company of CTV.
CTV News first sought comment in February. Rogers declined to comment, and Telus did not return any requests.
"BAI Communications has forged strong partnerships with some of the largest telecommunications companies around the globe," Vivan Kobeh with BAI Communications, told CTV News Toronto. "We are eager to work with all carriers to provide cellular access to all TTC riders."
TTC spokesperson Stuart Green says 911 service is available to all on the downtown U and western edge of Line 1, regardless of their cell carrier.
"The yellow [emergency] strip on every vehicle is the best thing to do in an emergency," he added.
Otherwise, it is not uncommon for subway riders to see others making frantic calls and text messages during the precious moments when the train emerges above-ground.
Ainslie says the contract with BAI may warrant being evaluated.
"Eleven years to do WiFI in a subway system, compared to New York or Montreal, in particular, I think is reprehensible," he said.
New York's subway has cell service for major carriers, managed and operated by a subsidiary of BAI. It also built the infrastructure for Hong Kong's transit system.
In Montreal, a consortium of Canadian carriers began outfitting the metro tunnels in 2013. The entire network of 71 kilometers and 68 stations has had 4G-LTE cellular service since 2020.
Calls to get cellular service on the entirety of Toronto's subway have been renewed after 16-year-old Gabriel Magalhaes was fatally stabbed last weekend while sitting on a bench at Keele Station.
Police say he was attacked unprovoked. On Wednesday, Toronto police said another incident on March 12, inside an eastbound Subway near Islington Station, was a hate-provoked attack.
In 2012, the original request for proposal gave the winner bidder twelve months to establish contracts with "sufficient" wireless carriers, and a grace period of another year.
In an email, Kobeh with BAI said "we adhere to TTC's operational schedule for our expansion plans.”
But Moise says Toronto can't wait for BAI and Canadian carriers to play nice.
"[Whether] my phone is from Bell, Rogers or Telus, when I get into the subway I should be able to use it," said Moise, "and we as a city need to push them, or perhaps embarrass them to do the right thing."
Blaize Rafferty is one of the few who still has service on her way to work: she is with Freedom Mobile.
"It's a really important safety feature that I think everyone should have access to," she said outside Islington Station on Wednesday.
"And I don't think having a contract with Freedom Mobile is a reason I should have access to it and others do not."
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