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Toronto's subway highlights the difficulties of neutral hosting

Canada's Rogers will purchase the wireless network in Toronto's subway system. The network was built by BAI, but Freedom Mobile has been the only user.

Mike Dano

April 11, 2023

4 Min Read
Toronto's subway highlights the difficulties of neutral hosting

Canada's Rogers Communications this week announced it would purchase the wireless network in Toronto's subway system. The company said it would upgrade and expand the network – including by adding 5G – over the course of the next two years.

Rogers will buy the network from Australian telecommunications giant BAI Communications, which recently announced it would rebrand itself to Boldyn Networks. Terms of the companies' new deal – expected to close in the next two weeks – were not disclosed.

The transaction is noteworthy considering BAI has indicated its intentions to focus on operating neutral host networks globally. But the company's network in Toronto's subway system was anything but. According to Toronto's CityNews, Freedom Mobile is the only Canadian mobile operator that signed on to provide coverage to its customers through BAI's network in the subway. Meaning, the mobile customers of other Canadian operators – including Rogers, Telus and Bell – have little to no service along the subway line.

Figure 1: (Source: Paul McKinnon/Alamy Stock Photo) (Source: Paul McKinnon/Alamy Stock Photo)

"Anyone with a cell phone ought to be able to call for help if needed regardless of who provides their cell service," argued Toronto mayoral candidate Mitzie Hunter, according to the publication.

In response to questions from Light Reading, a Rogers representative wrote that "we’re planning to initiate discussions with other providers to participate. As we build out the network, we will work with other providers to bring them on board." The representative also noted that the network is currently available to any mobile customer of any operator that's making an emergency call, and that will continue as Rogers improves and expands the network.

Neutralizing the business

BAI, which expects to complete its rebranding to Boldyn in June, pointed out that it will continue to operate other wireless networks in transit hubs in New York, London and Hong Kong. But the company is exiting Toronto roughly ten years after winning the exclusive rights to build the Toronto Transit Commission's wireless network in the subway there.

"Following active negotiations over the past year, we have decided that the best outcome for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and its riders is a sale of our assets to Rogers. Rogers plans to build out a 5G network throughout the entire subway system," BAI said in a statement. "Each market we operate in is unique and multi-party negotiations are often complex. In this case we believe this is the best outcome to make connectivity a reality for TTC subway users."

As part of its rebranding to Boldyn, the company said it would focus on "shared networks." Such neutral host operations typically rely on a single installation that's shared among different service providers. That kind of design helps lower overall costs and streamlines a venue's network management requirements. However, it also requires support and consent from all of the operators in that location.

That appeared to be the missing element in Toronto.

According to CityNews, an increase in violent incidents on the TTC moved some to call for federal regulators to force Rogers, Bell and Telus to use BAI's network. "TTC riders need to feel safe and to be safe. Being able to use their cell phones regardless of who their provider is [is] part of making people safer," said Hunter, the city's mayoral candidate. Hunter argued that Rogers' takeover of the network could improve the situation.

Interestingly, Rogers' purchase of BAI's network comes at an important time for both companies. As BAI expands and rebrands, so too is Rogers finally closing on its $15 billion buyout of Shaw Communications. That transaction will create Canada's second-largest telecom company behind BCE.

To obtain regulatory approval for its purchase of Shaw, Rogers agreed to sell Shaw's wireless business, Freedom Mobile, to Quebecor's Videotron. As noted by CityNews, Freedom Mobile was the only user of BAI's network in Toronto's subway.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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