TORONTO - Rogers Communications Inc. has rolled out its high-speed 5G wireless service to its own customers in core parts of Toronto's downtown subway network, even as it continues to feud with the other major carriers over terms of access forall transit riders.

The Toronto-based telecommunications company said it has also upgraded the cellular network to provide all subway riders with more reliable access to 911 service in the same areas.

Rogers chief executive Tony Staffieri called the launch an important milestone.

“We're working hard to modernize and expand the network so all riders can reliably access 911 and connect to 5G everywhere across the subway system, including underground,” he said in a written statement.

As of Wednesday, Rogers customers can connect to its 5G network in much of the downtown core: in Line 1 stations and tunnels north from Union Station to St. George and Bloor-Yonge, plus Spadina and Dupont stations; and in 13 stations on Line 2 between Keele and Castle Frank, plus the tunnels between St. George and Yonge stations.

Rogers in April bought the Canadian operations of BAI Communications, which had owned the rights to provide wireless service on the Toronto subway.

Rogers announced plans to upgrade the existing infrastructure, which already includes cellular capability 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.


Rogers TTC service

The company has pledged to work with its rivals, which include Bell and Telus, and make any upgraded system accessible for other carriers to use, but its rivals have raised concerns with the company's plans.

The federal government launched a consultation process last month in a bid to speed up negotiations among the major carriers.

In a filing to Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada earlier this month, Rogers opposed an option the department is considering that would prevent it from giving its customers first access to the upgraded wireless network.

It said it preferred the matter be decided through commercial negotiations.

When asked, Rogers did not provide clarity on why it launched the network for its customers despite the negotiations not yet leading to an agreement.

Spokesman Cam Gordon pointed to a section of the company's ISED submission that accused Bell and Telus of seeking “to delay access for customers of other carriers.” The excerpt said preventing Rogers from turning on the network for its own customers would undermine the “shared objective to provide all TTC riders with timely access to enhanced wireless services.”

“Bell and Telus have been playing games instead of negotiating on behalf of their customers - after showing no real interest for over 10 years in providing wireless services or raising public safety concerns about the limited coverage in the TTC,” Gordon said in a statement.

“We continue to respectfully participate in the federal government's consultation process.”

Rogers has vowed to make the upgraded system accessible for other mobile carriers to provide wireless coverage to their customers. That includes honouring BAI's previous contract with Freedom Mobile, now owned by Quebecor Inc., the lone carrier whose customers already have access to the network.

Bell and Telus both have 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.

In their own submissions to Ottawa, Bell and Telus urged the government to prevent Rogers from providing first access to its customers on the TTC. Those companies said Rogers should be made to wait until it is technically feasible for all riders to use the mobile network.

Bell spokeswoman Ellen Murphy said Rogers “clearly continues to seek to advantage itself at the expense of Toronto residents and is showing brazen disregard for the ongoing consultation led by (Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne).”

“Rogers' decision also goes against the recommendation of many community groups like the Women Abuse Council of Toronto, CodeRed TO, Toronto YWCA and Toronto Police Service, all of whom advocate that wireless connectivity on the TTC is a public safety issue and needs to be available to everyone as soon as possible, regardless of carrier,” said Murphy in a statement.

Telus spokesman Richard Gilhooley said the company “is outraged that Rogers has restricted access to Internet connectivity on the TTC.”

“The TTC is a public service paid for by the people of Toronto, and everyone should have equal access to connectivity and the added safety it provides,” he said in a statement.

“Rogers has demonstrated a complete lack of co-operation on access for all riders, refusing to meet with other carriers or grant roaming access.”

It's not clear if the federal government could still move to prevent Rogers from providing access to its own customers before other riders. That would mean potentially requiring Rogers to reverse its activation of the 5G network.

Gordon said deactivating the upgraded network “would turn off enhancements we have made to improve access to 911 for all riders.”

Speaking to reporters at the federal cabinet retreat in Prince Edward Island, Champagne skirted questions of whether he was concerned Rogers had jumped the gun ahead of his eventual ruling in the consultation process.

That decision is expected after an Aug. 28 deadline for the carriers to reply to each other's submissions.

Champagne said he has a number of unspecified “tools in the toolbox” under the Telecommunications Act to ensure wireless coverage is made available to all TTC riders.

“I can assure you that I'm going to take decisive action to make sure that we force the different networks (carriers) to be able to offer coverage to the users,” the minister said.

“We want all - Telus, Rogers and Bell - to be able to offer coverage in the subway system in Toronto because it should not depend (on) who's your provider in order to be able to access 911, or being able to call your mother if you're going to be late or if there's any safety issue.”

TTC spokesman Stuart Green said the decision of when to launch cellular service on the subway network was entirely up to Rogers.

“Outside an edict to the contrary, we cannot and would not stop them. There's nothing we're aware of that prevents this launch,” he said in an email.

TTC CEO Rick Leary called the move “a significant milestone in Rogers' commitment to bringing modern, high-speed connectivity to the TTC subway system.”

“TTC and Rogers staff worked hard to make this happen quickly and I look forward to the full build out being completed with all wireless carriers signing on to the network,” Leary said in a statement.

Rogers had said in its submission to Ottawa that forcing the company to hold off on its launch until all riders could use the upgraded cellular network “could delay access to wireless services in the TTC by consumers (including customers of Rogers and any other licensee motivated to negotiate commercial terms in good faith), as well as access to improved 911 availability for all riders.”

It noted there are “legitimate technical constraints associated with onboarding other carriers” that would leave its rivals at least four weeks behind on installing and testing their equipment on the TTC.

Shelagh Pizey-Allen, executive director of the TTC Riders advocacy group, said she doesn't buy Rogers' argument.

“It's hard to take those comments at face value when they have such a clear financial interest in offering service to their customers first,” she said.

“It's not fair for some people to not have access to cell service. It's a safety issue. It's an accessibility issue. What's important now is that everyone gets access to the network, no matter who their provider is.”

- With files from Mia Rabson in Charlottetown

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 23, 2023.