Champagne vows to take action if telecoms don't reach deal for TTC cell service

·3 min read

Canada's industry minister vowed to step in if Canada's major telecom providers don't reach an agreement to ensure wireless service is available for all riders on Toronto's subway system.

Speaking at a press conference in Montreal on Friday, François-Philippe Champagne said he’s not shy about “pushing the telcos to do what’s right for Canadians.”

“Because some of them, they listen to me — they tend to do that when I speak about them — if they don’t come to an arrangement together that would serve Canadians, that would increase the coverage, that would increase the 911 services in the subway system in Toronto, we’ll take action and we’ll make sure that we do what’s right for Canadians,” Champagne said.

Last week, the minister penned a letter to the executives of Bell Canada, Telus Communications Inc., Quebecor Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc. calling on the major carriers to reach a deal that would allow any company to access the TTC's wireless network after Rogers’ purchase of the existing operations.

The companies were given 30 days to respond detailing their respective statuses on the issue and outline a joint plan.

While Rogers reiterated it is open to working with other wireless carriers, its rivals have indicated that paying Rogers a fee so their customers can use the network is not a viable option for them.

Bell president and CEO Mirko Bibic responded to the minister that his company would only take part in the network if it has a chance to help build it with the other carriers. Telus said it agreed with Bell that "a consortium approach to building the TTC network" is the best way forward.

Bibic said that Bell and Telus jointly offered to acquire the rights to build out the wireless network if Rogers won't agree to that model, which the TTC called a "non-starter."

Meanwhile, Rogers president and CEO Tony Staffieri urged Champagne in his own reply to "not get caught up in the rhetoric of our competitors, particularly the response from Bell ... which included many inaccuracies and unfounded accusations that are disrespectful to the process and are not in the best interests of the TTC and its riders."

The lack of phone service for most TTC riders has been a growing concern since 2012, when Australia's BAI Communications was awarded a $25-million contract to build and operate the TTC's public Wi-Fi and cellular network.

Freedom Mobile was the only company that signed on to provide coverage to its customers since then. While customers not with Freedom have been unable to use BAI’s network other than for 911 emergency calling for more than a decade, calls to make the system work for all Torontonians have resurfaced after a recent spate of violent incidents on the TTC.

BAI agreed earlier this month to sell its Canadian operations to Rogers, which plans to upgrade the existing network covering around one-quarter of the subway's underground tunnels over the next nine months. Staffieri has said it will take around two years for Rogers to also build a 5G network for the remainder of the subway system.

Champagne said the issue “touches one million people per day which are using the Toronto transit system."

“It’s something a bit shocking that in a country like Canada, that in the largest transit system in our nation, which is the one in Toronto, that people cannot have reliable access to cell phone coverage,” he said.

“My letter to the telco CEOs was, ‘let’s do better,’ and I trust in them to come together to do better.”

— With files from Christopher Reynolds in Montreal

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2023.

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

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press