Is it time to hang up on the TTC cell service deal?

Since I was chair of the TTC at the time the contract was issued to BAI Communications for Wi-Fi service on the subway, I bear some responsibility for the current mess that needs to be cleaned up. Hopefully the TTC will clean it up soon, but time is running out, and if not fixed, the result could be limited cellphone coverage on the subway for many years to come. And nobody wants that. 

Over 10 years ago, the TTC issued a request for proposal to the major telecom carriers to provide cellular service throughout the subway portion of the system. At the time, the major carriers couldn’t comply with the requirements because building the required infrastructure conflicted with the Toronto Board of Health’s prudent avoidance policy, which dictated the minimum distance between installations of cellular infrastructure.

Since BAI, a builder of shared communications infrastructure, only offered Wi-Fi in certain stations and not cellular service throughout the tunnels, the company was awarded the contract on the basis that it would work with the major providers to get cell service throughout the system, without any plan for how it would occur.

Fast-forward to today. None of the major carriers signed on with BAI for several legitimate business reasons. However, the landscape has certainly changed, and the expectation is that a modern subway system should have cellular and Wi-Fi capability. This can now happen because in 2013 the prudence avoidance policy was no longer deemed necessary.

At that point, the TTC should have cancelled the substandard contract with BAI and reissued a request for proposal to the telecoms. Then the TTC would have a system like the one in Montreal and throughout Metrolinx in which a consortium of carriers builds the infrastructure, shares the cost and makes it widely available.

What has happened over the past few months has been shameful. Even while knowing that Rogers and BAI were in backroom discussions, TTC brass and certain mayoral candidates launched a disingenuous shaming campaign against the major telecom companies to provide cellular service in the TTC or have their contracts cancelled.

Since we are in a byelection for the vacated office of the mayor, the public will never know whether John Tory endorsed the backdoor dealing between Rogers and BAI. If he did, while still being a member of the Rogers Family Trust and a Rogers shareholder, it would be a significant conflict and would call the entire process into question.

Unfortunately, our city leaders and mayoral candidates have breathed a sigh of relief that the issue has been settled without seeming to realize that they are about to make the same mistakes. Rogers has already indicated that it is not interested in working with the other providers to build the network. This means that unless you are a Rogers customer you or your carrier will have to pay for the privilege of making a call while in the tunnel — and the cost may be high.

There is still time to get it right. This is not just a business deal between two companies. The TTC still needs to approve the contract and give Rogers access to the system. Hopefully someone will stand up for the TTC and the riders and stop playing politics on an issue that impacts over two million riders every day.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO