When Sidewalk Labs, the urban tech-focused subsidiary of Alphabet, the Google parent company, sought out a plot for its ‘digital city’ project, it was not Berlin, Rio de Janeiro or San Francisco that was chosen but Toronto. Announced in October 2017, the “Quayside,” is a 12-acre slice of waterfront where Alphabet aims to build the “world’s first neighbourhood built from the internet up.” The project which will be known as Sidewalk Toronto, was welcomed by Canada's Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau telling reporters that; “This will create a test bed for new technologies in Quayside. Technologies that will help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive cities…“
The rapidly growing Toronto Region is home to 7.8 million people and as well as being the economic engine of both Ontario and Canada, has gained a strong reputation for digital and tech excellence. And at the heart of this development has been the modernisation of the city's transport network.
Overseen by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) that operates bus, subway, streetcar, and paratransit services in what is the most heavily used urban mass transit system in all of Canada, and the third largest in North America. The modernisation includes signalling, and fare collection, but today we focus on the aspect which will have the most visible impact on commuters – the installation and roll out of a cellular and Wi-Fi network across the Toronto subway network.
This was a major project, with the TTC keen to meet the growing connectivity needs of Toronto’s citizens and they turned to a company at the heart of some of the most innovative technology in our industry – BAI Communications. Quite simply, they keep people connected, by designing, building and operating available communications networks – cellular, Wi-Fi, broadcast, radio – for customers and passengers around the world. To give us some exclusive insight into the project, we spoke to Ken Ranger, the CEO of BAI Canada ( @BAICanada ) - a BAI Communications company - a twenty year veteran of telecommunications and just as importantly for this project, a proud Torontonian.
We speak to Ken just after a key milestone has been hit for the project. Since 2015 customers of Freedom Mobile (a Canadian telecommunications provider) have been able to the use the BAI Canada mobile network whilst at underground stations. And then in December 2017, just in time for Holiday season, Freedom Mobile customers became the first to benefit from full connectivity and are now able to use the network to call, text and surf while in transit underground at all 75 subway stations and in nine kilometres of subway tunnel across the new Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension.
I ask Ken (pictured left at the launch in 2015) what the response to the network has been from passengers; “It’s been very positive. They actually want more! In a world-class city like Toronto, passengers expect to have quality cellular service wherever they are, above or below ground. The use is a real mixture too, both business and entertainment. And a recent Leger survey backs this up, with 74 per cent said they believe cell service in the subway system will add value to the Toronto economy based on increased productivity.”
But let us take a step back, the project began in 2012, and was the subject of a competitive tender. So what ensured BAI Communications ( @BAIComms ) gained the opportunity to deliver connectivity to Toronto?
At its heart is the technology they deploy, its highly sophisticated, founded on an optical fiber backbone, installing reliable and seamlessly integrated LAN, cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity. It also enables digital fare collections, public safety communications, remote monitoring and control, commuter analytics, scheduling and digital signage – the full portfolio of transit communication requirements that a transit agency might need.
However, even with the technology backbone mega projects like this still present challenges, Ken tells us: “We have been installing the connectivity on a network that was built in the 1950s, when of course there was no consideration for this kind of technology. And it’s a big job, last year alone BAI Canada crews worked more than 50,000 hours cumulatively, in deploying more than 50 kilometres of fibre optic on the Toronto network. But quite simply, this is our work. And between Toronto and New York, we’ve installed connectivity on two major networks. But working on a metro that is 60+ years old, also gave us a great focus on future proofing.”
Ken continues: “Technology has changed and continues to change quickly and this is something we are very aware of as our clients. But our view is that we design what is in effect a highway. The fibres aren’t going to change. The power isn’t going to change. We ensure that anything else that will need to be updated can be easily.”
2018 is set to continue to be a busy year for BAI, they will complete the installation of cellular connectivity on the metro, beyond just the platforms and into the tunnels, or from the “shore to the ship” as Ken describes it by the end of the Summer.
Passengers will also see a number of other developments made possible by the new level of connectivity. BAI are partnering to deliver PRESTO, the TTC’s new electronic fare payment system. Passenger safety is a key consideration of the TTC and their SafeTTC app, which is supported over BAI’s network. And also, passengers will be able to better plan their journeys with in-station information screens at each station platform, utilizing the wireless network.
In looking at BAI’s work in Toronto, it would be remiss to mention the work of Andy Byford who as Chief Executive Officer at the TTC was instrumental in delivering the project. When he took over the role in 2012 he stated that he wanted to be “renewing the people’s faith in the TTC” in creating a transit system that made “Toronto proud.”
His modernization has done just that, and the delivery of the connectivity programme with BAI was a cornerstone of this huge improvement in public transport for the people of Toronto.
Andy Byford summed up the change to the city in an address to Toronto Region Board of Trade last year: “Where, in the 1990s, experts stopped coming to see how we do things, they have now returned. Where other agencies stopped asking us for advice, they now actively seek us out and where once we would never have tempted people to join us from blue chip companies, they now send in unsolicited job applications.”
Byford’s work in modernizing the Toronto network, has put him in good stead for his new role began in January of this year when he was appointed president of New York City Transit, quite probably the biggest job in US transit. Each morning Byford takes the subway into his new office in Lower Manhattan, and whilst waiting on the platform for his train he can happily connect to the internet. He joins his fellow New Yorkers in accessing a cellular network used by all four major US wireless carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless as well as public Wi-Fi connectivity across the underground subway stations. All courtesy of who else but Transit Wireless, a majority-owned BAI Communications company.
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