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Experts urge CRTC to take action forcing companies to provide cell service on TTC

Click to play video: 'Concerns raised over lack of cell service on Toronto subways'
Concerns raised over lack of cell service on Toronto subways
Concerns raised over lack of cell service on Toronto subways – Mar 29, 2023

Amid calls for the Big Three telecommunications companies to provide wireless phone service on the TTC following a recent wave of violence, experts say the federal telecommunications regulator should force Rogers, Bell and Telus to use the subway system’s existing infrastructure.

Ben Klass, a PhD candidate at Carleton University who researches telecommunications policy, said it’s within the CRTC’s powers to issue a mandate if the providers won’t voluntarily give their customers the ability to call, text or browse the web while underground.

He pointed to Section 24 of the Telecommunications Act, which sets out powers for the regulator to impose conditions on carriers governing the “offering and provision of any telecommunications service.”

“The CRTC has the power to order these companies to offer service and also to set the conditions on which they do so,” said Klass.

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“It has extremely broad powers to deal with these types of things.”

In 2012, the TTC awarded a $25-million contract to BAI Communications Inc. to build and operate its public Wi-Fi and cellular network. Coverage is available at all stations and in tunnels located downtown, as well as other portions of the route.

But only Freedom Mobile has signed on to provide coverage to its customers through BAI’s network. Rogers, Bell and Telus have declined to do so.

“In general, Bell, Rogers and Telus never want to use other companies’ infrastructure,” Klass said. “They always want to use their own because it’s the cheapest way. They make the most money when they do that.”

BAI has attempted to sway the companies through public pressure in recent years. In 2019, it launched an online campaign, iwantaccess.ca, that invited TTC riders to sign a petition requesting the Big Three use its network.

“Connectivity is essential during emergencies and when TTC riders feel unsafe, allowing them to contact loved ones or call for help when the emergency alarm is out of reach,” states the website, which remains active.

Two other sections of the Telecommunications Act could be used to justify the CRTC stepping in, said Klass. Section 40 allows the commission to order a Canadian carrier to connect its telecommunications facilities to another company’s network.

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Another legal tool, Section 42, empowers the CRTC to “require or permit any telecommunications facilities to be provided, constructed, installed, altered, moved, operated, used, repaired or maintained.”

Click to play video: 'Safety on Toronto’s transit system front and centre at city hall'
Safety on Toronto’s transit system front and centre at city hall

But Klass noted the CRTC often doesn’t act on certain powers unless it receives a complaint.

Asked if it has received complaints about the lack of consumer access to BAI’s network, the CRTC did not immediately provide comment. Nor did BAI, while Telus did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, Rogers spokesman Cam Gordon said the company knows “rider safety is a key concern for Torontonians.”

“We recognize that connectivity plays an important role in public safety and we are committed to being part of the solution,” he said.

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Bell spokeswoman Ellen Murphy said the current network setup isn’t optimal for the company to provide cell service to its customers on the subway.

“We would like to bring reliable cell service to TTC passengers, just as we’ve done in Montreal and other cities, but the exclusive BAI solution won’t provide the service that TTC passengers need and deserve,” she said in a statement.

Last week, Toronto city council passed a motion by Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie urging the city to “call on all cellphone providers” to ensure service is available across the subway system and to notify the provincial and federal governments of the request.

That was prompted by an increase in violent incidents on the TTC over the past year, including the stabbing death of 16-year-old Gabriel Magalhaes at Keele station on March 25.

The motion did not call on the CRTC to take action.

“If we received advice from city staff and the TTC about the need to reach out to the regulator, we would follow that advice,” said David Turnbull, a spokesman for the deputy mayor, in an email.

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TTC spokesman Stuart Green did not elaborate on whether the transit commission would be in favour of regulatory intervention.

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“Our position has been clear for a decade-plus. BAI won a competitive tender and the major telcos have refused to sign on,” Green said in an email.

Rosa Addario of OpenMedia, an advocacy organization that promotes internet accessibility, said she is hopeful that recent incidents will “give new attention and pressure to the issue that customers are at risk because (cellphone companies) are failing to serve them.”

But she said it’s clear the companies are not going to change their tune unless they are forced to do so.

“Part of it does come from a regulatory standpoint of needing to see this kind of progress move forward, especially as people in Toronto are facing increased violence and fear,” Addario said.

“There’s an easy fix and they’re refusing to sign on to it.”

She highlighted that unlike in Toronto, the issue has been resolved for a decade in Montreal, where Bell, Rogers, Telus and Videotron built and co-own the Metro system’s cellphone network.

“These companies are so used to being the ones that own the networks and people pay them for access and they don’t want to see it be the other way around,” she said.

The situation exemplifies the pitfalls of the Big Three’s dominance in the market, according to Jennifer Quaid, a University of Ottawa professor who specializes in competition law.

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“It’s an illustration of when you do need regulation,” she said.

“They can afford to wait it out. They can afford to not actually provide you what you want and you’ll still have to pay. That’s what lack of choice brings.”

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