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Rogers to expand its 5G network across the entire Toronto subway system

TORONTO — Bell and Telus are concerned they will be shut out of wireless service on Toronto's transit system as Rogers Communications Inc. takes over exclusive rights of the network.
Rogers Communications Inc. says it will expand its latest high-speed wireless network across Toronto’s entire subway system. Commuters wait to take the subway at Ossington Station in Toronto on Friday, June 22, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

TORONTO — Bell and Telus are concerned they will be shut out of wireless service on Toronto's transit system as Rogers Communications Inc. takes over exclusive rights of the network. 

Cellphone and internet service will be available for Toronto subway riders in some locations in about nine months, Rogers said, though it will be two years before riders see full connectivity as the company builds a 5G network across all subway lines.

On Monday, Rogers announced it reached a deal to acquire BAI Communications’ Canadian operations, which has held the exclusive rights to build the TTC’s wireless network since 2012.

Rogers spokesman Cam Gordon said the company is planning to reach out to competing service providers, such as Bell and Telus, to encourage them to join.

"As we build out the network, we will work with other providers to bring them on board," he said in a statement.

But Bell spokeswoman Caroline Audet said the deal amounts to the TTC "just replacing one gatekeeper with another."

She urged the City of Toronto to mandate immediate access for all carriers, noting there are "no assurances that all wireless service providers will have access."

"Giving the contract to Rogers without any open bid process is surprising, especially given how TTC customers were so poorly served by BAI for so many years," she said in an email.

"We find it troubling that the City and TTC after all these years did not learn from the experiences of their counterparts in Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Eglinton Crosstown LRT right here in Toronto, all of whom worked with all wireless carriers in order to ensure best in class coverage for all transit riders."

In a statement, Telus spokesman Martin Nguyen said the company is "committed to working with the TTC and other carriers to deliver a solution that ensures full access for all riders, as we have successfully done in other cities such as Vancouver and Montreal."

"Torontonians want a solution that addresses the increased safety concerns about network connectivity along the TTC. This needs to include access for all cellular providers, so that all riders have coverage," he said in an email.

Freedom Mobile had been the only company that signed on to provide coverage to its customers through BAI's network.

Gordon added Freedom’s agreement with BAI remains in place and "Freedom customers will continue to have the same access they do today."

Extensive fibre network and radio equipment upgrades are needed to add 5G cellular capacity to the TTC, according to Rogers. That would replace the current 3G and 4G network, which is limited to TTC subway platforms and concourses and approximately one-quarter of tunnels, mostly located downtown.

"The existing network ... cannot handle customer volume from the major carriers," said Gordon in a statement.

An increase in violent incidents on the TTC over the past year has brought the gap under fresh scrutiny, with some calling on the federal telecommunications regulator to force Rogers, Bell and Telus to use BAI's network.

Rogers said the completed 5G network will deliver wireless coverage in all 75 stations and almost 80 kilometres of the subway system.

The company said this will include access to 911 for all riders.

Initial upgrades to the existing network are expected to take approximately nine months, the company said.

Rosa Addario of OpenMedia, an advocacy organization that promotes internet accessibility called on Rogers to offer service sooner as it completes those upgrades.

She said the acquisition was a positive step, despite being the "result of bullying tactics."

"Rogers has really spun this story to be about their critical role in updating the outdated infrastructure that BAI was using, but to be completely clear, they could be offering this connectivity to everyone today," Addario said.

"It really comes down to the fact that they would rather maintain this immense degree of control over our telecommunications infrastructure, than provide the essential services that we need."

Ben Klass, a PhD candidate at Carleton University who researches telecommunications policy, described Rogers as the winner in a decade-long "game of chicken" with BAI and the other major carriers.

He said Rogers' acquisition is "in the collective interests" of the Big Three.

"They've won by keeping a foreign infrastructure provider out of the sort of heartland of their territory," he said.

"It's not just Rogers individually, but it's these large Canadian telecoms, when faced with entry from even small providers, but in this particular case, a well-resourced foreign one that's installed infrastructure in the heart of Toronto, they see that as a threat."

Rogers said it expects the deal to close in the next two weeks.

"As with any transaction of this type, we need to allow for the local and regulatory processes to be completed," BAI Communications spokeswoman Vivian Kobeh said in a statement.

She said there would be "a limited number of job losses as a result of this process," but did not provide clarity on how many.

Rogers confirmed BAI Canada employees who handle the TTC cellular network will transition to Rogers, where they will continue to manage daily operations.

Other BAI Canada employees that perform global roles will remain part of the BAI Group organization after the transaction is closed. 

Rogers completed its acquisition of Shaw Communications Inc. earlier this month in a deal that saw Quebecor Inc.'s Videotron buy Shaw's Freedom Mobile wireless business.

As part of its commitments to win regulatory approval for the deal, Rogers promised to spend $5.5 billion to expand 5G coverage and additional network service.

It said it would work with the TTC on a phased deployment plan, including network design, architecture and rollout logistics, for both network improvements and expansion in the stations, concourses and in all of the subway tunnels.

In a statement, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said it is monitoring developments related to the deal "to determine what role, if any," it has to play.

"We understand the importance of reliable telecommunications services to the safety and wellbeing of Canadians," said CRTC spokeswoman Patricia Valladao.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 11, 2023.

Companies in this story: (TSX:RCI.B, TSX:BCE, TSX:T)

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press

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