I was as excited when I heard that we were going to be getting wifi internet at two of the busiest stations on the TTC. Finally, a chance to update my miserable Twitter feed about the woman using up five seats with her bags and feet during rush hour without having to wait until I get back to street level.
When the date was set in stone I was downright giddy. One step closer to those ‘world class’ transit systems that everyone else seems to have.
And then this past Monday on my way into the office I braced myself for my transfer at St. George to be a part of the first wave of people using the new wireless system. And then — well, and then it didn’t work.
Tried my first tweet from St George on the new TTC Wifi today. It did not work.
— Travis Myers (@travmyers) November 25, 2013
It turns out it was my own error — I hadn’t waited through the introduction video — that had caused my tweet to stay in my drafts box. The more I thought about it the more I realized that this wifi system, which we are stuck with for the next few years thanks to contracts in place, is a sub-par product at best, and at worst it is a hazard that could cost lives. Here’s why:
1. It takes too long to log on
From the time my train pulled into St. George on Monday I had my phone out and ready. I should note that, like many people, I keep the wifi capabilities of my phone turned off most of the time. Too often I am walking past a Tim Hortons, a Pizza Pizza, or a Starbucks and instantly I am no longer able to send my iMessage or my Facebook feed won’t refresh. Like these providers of free wifi the TTC uses a splash page, meaning that in order to connect to the TTC’s wifi you must first have your phone/tablet/computer (please don’t bring your computer on a train)/device’s wifi capability turned on, then open up your web browsing app. You must then refresh the page you were on or try and navigate to a new page. For most free wifi it is simply a user agreement and you’re on. For the TTC’s wifi you are greeted with the TTC Wifi’s splash page where you are asked to click the ‘Next’ button, and you are then navigated to a video. Currently the video is an introduction to the TTC’s new wifi showing a bunch of happy people hanging out on platforms using their devices without a care in the world. With the video loaded and played you’ve wasted another good half minute.
Once you start to add up the time spent connecting you start to realize the flaw of this system. Including the time you’ve spent connecting, loading, refreshing, loading, loading, watching (the video is mandatory in order to continue to the service and overrides any music you had playing), and then loading again you’ve wasted just about the entire time you had from one train to another, from the surface to the train, or from the train to the surface.
This is troublesome. First off because it is a safety hazard to have such an involved process when you are walking beside speeding trains, an issue we will get to soon. It is also troublesome because the time wasted connecting defeats the entire purpose of having wifi on the subway. LTE, 3G and any other kind of phone service would have allowed passengers to continue what they were doing and connect instantly to their network, this doesn’t. Beyond the ultra saavy teenagers who will swipe and tap without looking, most people will gain a precious half minute from their connectivity. Most probably won’t bother.
It is also important to remember that this is just a test project getting ready for a larger roll out — meaning that BAI Canada, who paid $25 million for the contract, will most likely be recouping some or all of their cost with advertising, meaning that the splash page will remain mandatory while it includes something like a preview of Global’s next fall line up before redirecting you to a (minimum) 15 second advert from Swiss Chalet, all to access the internet for a scant few seconds before your train pulls out of the station and back into radio silence.
2. It reeks of collusion from the big three telecom companies
As mentioned before, BAI Canada, a subsidiary of an Australian telecom company, runs this show. When the TTC accepted bids for the contract last fall BAI beat out two others. The only Canadian telecom company that threw in a bid was Bell Mobility at $5.49 million, a little more than one fifth of the $25 million BAI paid.
As it stands BAI is to roll out wifi service to all TTC stations by 2017 (the two station trial is to prove that their signal will not interfere with TTC radio equipment) — but the most interesting part of the deal is that BAI has one or two years to establish relationships with telecom carriers who represent 60% of Toronto’s subway users. One of those major carriers in Bell Mobility, the carrier that has already shown they aren’t willing to play outside of what I like to think of as “the Canadian telecom fantasy bubble” with their small bid. If BAI can’t get two out of the big three telecom carriers on board after one or two years they have the option of backing out of the overall contract at which point it would be up for grabs again.
The chances of getting Bell on board seem slim since they have already expressed interest in handling the operation themselves. Telus and Rogers have a nasty habit of towing the line right beside Bell and each other on these matters with their questionable practices. Practices such as releasing new packages that are identical in all three companies right down to the cent or teaming up to try and convince Canadian consumers to rally against possible new entrant Verizon. The three have shown to be quite happy with their slices of what often amounts to a monopoly over the Canadian telecom industry and working together to protect that isn’t out of the norm for these guys.
A very possible future for BAI and the TTC could be a lack of cooperation from two or three of the big mobile providers followed by one of them swooping in for the contract a few years down the line, with the only little problem being the lack of quality service on track level for passengers. But hey, we Torontonians are used to crappy customer service from both our cell providers and the TTC, so this would be nothing new.
3. It could cost someone their life on the platform
As I’d mentioned before, the process by which we connect to the wifi is very hands- and eyes-on. Consider for a moment that Bloor-Yonge and St. George are the busiest stations in our subway system, full of trains wooshing in, shoulder to shoulder crowds of people at rush hour, stairways, the gnashing steps of escalators, and the annual slip-and-slide the wet linoleum creates on the platforms in our slushy Toronto winters.
There are quite enough accidents and mishaps that occur from people changing their music and looking at their newspapers as they rush from one train to another, adding a bunch of clicks and swipes along with audio and video seems to be a recipe for disaster on the part of BAI and the TTC, and I can only hope that is doesn’t result in any deaths from people carelessly logging on while walking the platform, but I can’t shake the feeling of certainty that it will.
Follow Travis on Twitter at @TravMyers.
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