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Rogers' proposed TTC framework commits to consultations, but short on details

TORONTO — Rogers Communication Inc.
People head for shuttle buses after subway service was closed during the morning commute in Toronto, Wednesday, April 5, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy

TORONTO — Rogers Communication Inc.'s proposal for providing wireless service on Toronto's subway indicates the company's competitors will be consulted in the design and planning of upgrades, but includes no specifics about the terms required for Bell and Telus to access the network.

Rogers announced in April that it was buying the Canadian operations of BAI Communications, which owns the wireless network in Toronto's subway, and planned to bring 911 coverage and 5G connectivity to the entire system.

On Monday, the company said it had sent federal Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne a proposal in May outlining a plan to negotiate agreements with all carriers to join the network.

The proposed framework comes after the minister penned a letter to the executives of Rogers, Bell Canada, Telus Communications Inc. and Quebecor Inc. calling on them to reach a deal that would allow any company to access the TTC's wireless system 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.

Rogers' proposal, parts of which it shared Wednesday with The Canadian Press, outlines that Rogers would act as the lead carrier of the upgraded network, but the company would make the system accessible for other mobile carriers to provide their customers text, voice and data services.

It said it would also consult the other providers on design and planning of the network, accommodation of spectrum needs and access-related issues.

Rogers has said extensive fibre network and radio equipment upgrades are needed to add 5G cellular capacity to the TTC, replacing 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 process to upgrade and expand the system is expected to take up to two years.

Rogers' proposal said the company would stabilize the existing network so 911 service continues to be available for all TTC riders regardless of carrier. It also plans to add 988 service, the mental health crisis hotline that is slated to launch in Canada in November, for all TTC riders as soon as possible.

Rogers said it would work with the TTC to raise awareness that all riders can access emergency services regardless of their carrier.

It said its commitments are subject to its contractual obligations to the TTC, as well as the negotiation of "reasonable commercial agreements" with each carrier, which will set out details such as timing, technical specifications and the costs for other providers to access the network.

But both Bell and Telus say the proposed framework lacks key information, such as details related to capacity upgrades and commercial terms. Bell spokeswoman Jacqueline Michelis said the proposal "is based on a failed model that will lead to further delays for TTC riders."

"The framework proposed by Rogers does not ensure all customers are served regardless of who their carrier is. It simply establishes Rogers as the gatekeeper of access to wireless service in the subway," Michelis said in a statement.

"Despite repeated requests Rogers still has not provided other carriers with any engineering details of the subway’s wireless network including the capacity of the network to accommodate multi carrier traffic and the nature of the upgrades required to create a robust all carrier network."

Telus spokesperson Richard Gilhooley said that while the company received Rogers' proposed framework weeks ago, "no negotiations of any substance have taken place since."

"Unfortunately, despite repeated attempts by Telus and others to engage with Rogers to determine the method by which all carriers could access the system, they have not supplied commercial terms or technical details," Gilhooley said in an email.

"We respectfully suggest that Rogers do the right thing and undertake good faith negotiations so we can all deliver the best solution for Torontonians."

Quebecor president and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau said in a tweet Tuesday that his company planned to discuss improvements to the TTC wireless infrastructure with Rogers. Earlier this year, Quebecor's Videotron purchased Freedom Mobile in a deal which is the only carrier previously signed on to provide wireless service on the TTC through the BAI network.

Péladeau said it's "not surprising that Bell itself has been stonewalling for weeks and blaming others, as they always do," and that Freedom "is committed to increasing choice for the benefit of all Canadians."

Rogers spokesman Cam Gordon called his company's proposal "fair and reasonable." In addition to the framework, Rogers has proposed a dispute resolution process in case it is unable to reach deals with the other carriers "in a timely way."

"Bell and Telus continue to mischaracterize our commitment to modernize and expand the network to deliver full wireless coverage for all TTC riders regardless of their carrier," Gordon said in a written statement.

"It’s time they stop delaying so we can get a deal done to benefit all TTC riders."

Champagne's office said the minister has requested the companies "find a coordinated path forward."

"However, these negotiations have not yet produced an outcome that will serve all customers," Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada spokesman Sean Benmor said in a statement.

"The Minister is monitoring the negotiations closely. He is prepared to take further action and is reviewing all options."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.

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

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press