More than a decade after embarking on a plan to offer wireless service on the Toronto subway, the TTC has joined the global ranks of transit systems where riders can make phone calls, send text messages or browse the web underground — regardless of their mobile carrier.

Major carriers Bell Canada and Telus Corp., along with their low-cost brands Virgin and Koodoo, began offering cellular service in the busiest sections of the Toronto subway system on Monday, giving their customers the same access already enjoyed by riders with Rogers Communications Inc. and Quebecor Inc.'s Freedom Mobile.

The Rogers-owned 5G wireless network is available to passengers in the Line 1 stations and tunnels in the so-called Downtown U from Union Station north to St. George and Bloor-Yonge, plus Spadina and Dupont stations. Users are also able to access the network in 13 stations on Line 2, along Bloor Street from Keele station to Castle Frank, plus the tunnels between St. George and Yonge stations. 

Rogers acquired the cellular network in the subway system from BAI Canada earlier this year and has been working to upgrade it.

The winding road to Monday's milestone began in 2012, when the TTC, as part of a public procurement, awarded Australia-based BAI a $25-million contract that would see it develop a wireless network in the Toronto subway system.

But BAI and the TTC only managed to sign on one carrier, Wind Mobile. Later rebranded Freedom Mobile, its customers had been the only riders since 2015 with access to mobile service on select TTC platforms and tunnels.

Elsewhere, other major cities zoomed past Toronto on similar projects as the TTC subway lagged behind.

New York City launched underground mobile service at its first six subway stations in 2011 through a partnership with BAI subsidiary Transit Wireless. By 2017, there was cell service at all underground subway stations in the city, while the tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan became its first to have full cellular and data connectivity three years later.

In 2013, Canada's four major carriers launched a $50-million project to build a cellular network in Montreal's Metro system, which was completed by 2020.

But co-operation between the rival telecoms has been hard to come by in Toronto.

The service to all carriers comes after months of tense back-and-forth negotiations between Rogers, Bell and Telus over the best technical approach, and financial terms, for the coverage.

Bell and Telus wanted a joint build of the TTC's mobile network using a consortium model similar to that of Montreal's Metro, rather than a pay-for-access approach. Rogers has not publicly committed to either model.

While that dispute remains unresolved, the federal government set a deadline of Tuesday for all TTC subway system passengers to have cellular connectivity, regardless of their carrier. It also set a Dec. 20 deadline for the companies to negotiate commercial agreements to provide service on the subway over the long term.

“Our dedicated team of technologists designed and introduced an immediate solution that added capacity, so Bell and Telus could join the network,” said Rogers chief technology and information officer Ron McKenzie in a press release.

In an interview, Bell vice-president of wireless networks Mark McDonald said he was optimistic that Bell and Telus would get their way as they continue to negotiate with Rogers.

"I really don't know why they've been reluctant," he said of Rogers's lack of commitment to a consortium build.

"It's a precedent. It is the standard model in Canada. So I believe that everybody will realize that's the right path forward to bring the highest quality network in the subway, to share those costs."

Telus spokesman Richard Gilhooley said in a statement his company would be "working hard to expand the number of stations and tunnels covered in the coming months."

Monday's news was welcomed by Shelagh Pizey-Allen, executive director of the TTCriders advocacy group, who said it still took too long to reach the milestone given the ongoing safety issues on the transit system.

"It's still kind of shocking how long it's taken to get to this point, but we're glad that the federal government stepped in, that the new mayor asked the federal government to step in, and that everyone will have access to cell service in the subway," she said.

"People report that the subway is the place where they feel the least safe on the TTC network and it's because people feel isolated."

Rogers bought the Canadian arm of BAI Communications and the rights to provide wireless service on the subway in April. It then announced plans to upgrade the existing infrastructure installed by BAI 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 vowed to make the system accessible for other carriers to provide coverage to their customers. That included honouring BAI's previous contract with Freedom Mobile.

Rogers customers have had cellular service on the subway since the company activated high-speed 5G wireless service on Aug. 23. The move came while Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne was considering changes to the conditions of licence for the major telecoms in order to ensure all TTC customers could access Rogers's upgraded cellular network.

Bell and Telus had urged the federal minister to prevent Rogers from giving its own customers a head start on using the network.

But after launching service before Champagne ruled on the issue, Rogers then argued in a submission to Ottawa that the federal government should not force it to turn off access for its own customers — a position accepted by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED).

"As ISED’s objective … is to ensure access to wireless services for Canadians throughout the TTC Subway System, it would be contrary to ISED’s objectives to prevent or remove services once they have been offered," it said in its ruling last month.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 2, 2023.