All TTC stations now equipped with cell service
Milestone could improve commutes for millions of subway riders, but so far only one cellular provider has signed on.
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Every TTC subway station is now equipped for cellphone service, allowing transit users to chat and text while they wait for their next train. But while the TTC is hailing it as a milestone with the potential to significantly improve the travel experience of millions of customers, the country’s three main cell providers have yet to get on board with the project, which means for now most transit riders will be unable to make use of the underground cell network.
The TTC and BAI Canada will announce Wednesday morning the telecommunications firm has completed the installation of “cellular connectivity infrastructure” at all of Toronto’s 75 subway stops, the Star has learned, including the six new stations on the Line 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina) extension set to open Sunday.
The 4G/LTE coverage extends to all public areas of stations, including platforms, mezzanine levels, and stairwells.
“It’s good news. It’s something that’s been a long time coming and I certainly know that our customers, it’s something that they constantly ask for,” said TTC Chair Josh Colle in an interview.
He said that “everyone’s trip is a little longer than they’d like” and he hoped that providing access to cell service would make for “a more endurable, or even better, a more enjoyable trip.”
However, so far Freedom Mobile is the only cell carrier that has reached agreement with BAI to make use of the cellular network.
Cellphone users with Telus, Rogers, and Bell, which together control about 90 per cent of the national market, won’t have access.
BAI chief executive officer Ken Ranger said his company has had “periodic conversations” with the big three providers about an agreement, but wouldn’t disclose any details.
A Rogers spokesperson wouldn’t say whether the company planned to sign a deal with BAI now that all subway stations are equipped.
“We’re focused on delivering a reliable, worry-free network for our customers and are considering all options as we continue to invest in our network in 2018,” she said in an email.
Representatives from Telus and Bell didn’t immediately return requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.
The TTC awarded BAI the contract to install and operate a Wi-Fi and cellular network on the subway system in 2012. Under the terms of the deal, the company agreed to pay the TTC $25 million over 20 years.
Three years later, Freedom (which was then Wind Mobile) signed a deal with BAI to use the network. Neither BAI nor Freedom would disclose how much the company agreed to pay BAI, although Ranger described it as “a fair portion, similar to what the other three licensed carriers would pay.”
Colle admitted he’s frustrated the major companies have yet to sign on, and speculated they were reluctant to ink a deal with BAI because they prefer to build their own infrastructure.
“I think they’ve got to get over themselves,” Colle said, calling on the big firms to “step up and give their customers what they want.”
“The system is in place, they can provide this to their customers tomorrow if they wanted to.”
BAI has been working on building the wireless network since 2013. It completed the installation of Wi-Fi internet at all stations in September. The internet service is available to all customers regardless of their cellular provider.
This week the company finished installing cellular infrastructure at Kipling, the last station to have the equipment installed.
The work was done by five crews of about five workers each, who had to most of the installation between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. when the subway was out of service. This year alone they installed more than 50 km of fibre optic cable on the subway network.
The system is built around three data centres above Bloor-Yonge, St. Clair West, and Davisville stations that relay cell signals underground to a series of nondescript white, circular antennas installed inside stations.
“We’re really happy with where we’re at today and couldn’t be more thrilled to announce that all the stations are done,” Ranger said.
The next step is for BAI to expand the cellular network inside the subway tunnels themselves, which would allow passengers to make calls while the trains are in motion.
Ranger said work has already begun to install antennas in tunnels on Line 1 from Bloor St. to King St., and by next summer the necessary infrastructure should be in place in all tunnels in the downtown core. After that, it will take two to three years to complete the entire network.
The 8.6 kilometres of tunnel that make up the Line 1 extension will be fully cellular-enabled from opening day.
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