Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne's newly launched consultation process regarding wireless access on Toronto's subway system proposes a timeline that could see the dispute between carriers resolved by December and partial service rolled out for all customers by the middle of 2024.
Noting a lack of progress in negotiations, Champagne announced Monday an expedited consultation process to revise the licences of all four of Canada’s major wireless carriers "to ensure that all TTC riders have coverage, including 911 service, in all tunnels and stations, followed by voice, data and text as soon as technically feasible."
The move by Champagne comes amid a stalemate in talks since Rogers Communications Inc. bought the Canadian operations of BAI Communications, which had owned the rights to provide wireless service on the subway, in April.
"On a broader scale, it's absolutely ridiculous that a world-class city like Toronto doesn't have this service in their subways because most major cities have this service," said David Soberman, a marketing professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management who follows the telecom sector.
"The fact that the federal government has to get involved is a bit discouraging."
Parties have until Aug. 8 to submit comments on the proposed licence conditions, plus another 15 days to respond to other submissions. Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada would then post a decision following a review of the feedback it receives, triggering a 30-day window for the carriers to complete negotiations.
But if Rogers and its rival carriers fail to meet that deadline, they would be required to enter an arbitration proceeding, which must be completed within 70 days.
After either negotiations or arbitration have concluded, each major carrier would be required to offer voice, text and data services in all TTC stations within the following six months and 80 per cent of subway tunnels within two years.
Each company would also have to offer cellular cervices in all TTC tunnel areas within three years.
Rogers has announced plans to upgrade the existing network built by BAI, which includes service at most downtown subway stations, and build 5G capability for the entire network of stations and tunnels — a process it expects to take two years.
"We've been hard at work with the TTC to upgrade the existing network and make 5G available to all riders as soon as possible," said Rogers spokesman Cam Gordon in a statement.
Rogers has vowed to work with its rivals and make the upgraded system accessible for other mobile carriers to provide wireless coverage. That includes honouring BAI's previous contract with Freedom Mobile, now owned by Quebecor Inc.
It also proposed a framework in May that pledged to consult other carriers on design and planning, accommodation of spectrum needs and access to carrier base station hotels as it adds 5G capacity to the TTC. That proposal included an Aug. 15 deadline to reach an agreement, or have an arbitrator rule on the matter by this fall.
But Bell Canada and Telus Corp. have both fiercely advocated for a joint build of the subway's 5G network using a consortium model similar to that of Montreal's Metro system rather than a pay-for-access approach. Rogers has not publicly committed to either model.
Soberman said he believes a consortium model is the most likely end result of Ottawa's proposed negotiation process. Other potential outcomes could see an independent organization, or a government entity, oversee and provide cellular service.
He compared mobile phone access to an essential service like electricity, water or roads, for which most Canadians would expect the government to step in if a company providing those services wasn't meeting expectations.
"A model in which one company owns the infrastructure and charges the others is probably not the way we're going to go," he said.
Soberman said the companies have an incentive to work out their disagreements in negotiations rather than wait for arbitration, a method which he said carries a high risk for either side.
"Obviously, Bell and Telus are not going to want to be in a situation where only Rogers customers get service in the TTC," he said.
It's unclear whether Rogers would seek to offer 5G service on the subway to its own customers before those with other carriers if the infrastructure is ready before the dispute is resolved.
A TTC report this month said the transit agency expects Rogers will be able to provide 5G capability along tunnels and stations from Union Station north to St. George and Bloor-Yonge stations by the start of the school year.
But the report remained mum on whether customers of other companies will have service this fall.
Neither Rogers nor the TTC provided an answer to that question when asked Tuesday.
"Rogers has committed to engaging with all carriers and getting them onboard soon as possible," said TTC spokesman Stuart Green. "We look forward to the successful conclusion of that work."
The consultation notice released by Champagne noted the federal department is considering imposing conditions that would prevent Rogers from providing service the TTC until all parties have reached an agreement. Ottawa said the ability to do so "could confer a competitive advantage."
Soberman said doing so would be a "lose-lose" scenario as it would further delay access to cellular service for all customers even once the infrastructure is built.
Shelagh Pizey-Allen, executive director of the TTCriders advocacy group, said all customers need access as soon as possible and that "any delay is unfair."
"Everyone needs access to cell service on the TTC, not just 911 service, but access to texting because it's about safety and also about navigating the system, getting real time updates if there's a security incident or just a delay," she said.
"What we're looking for is news that all TTC users will be able to use their cellphones in the subway tunnels, no matter who their provider is."
Pizey-Allen said the TTC deserves a share of the blame for allowing the situation to drag on for a decade before green-lighting Rogers' purchase of the network without public debate.
"It really shouldn't have taken this long and taken a crisis in public confidence and safety to get action on this," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 25, 2023.