Building the network Toronto deserves

We’ve talked previously about the appetite for connectivity in the world at large and Canada in particular, and the many benefits for Toronto as the city becomes increasingly smart and connected. At BAI Canada, we’re proud to be part of delivering this future for Toronto through our work with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).

In December 2012, we were awarded a 25-year contract to build and operate the Toronto subway wireless network. We have extensive global experience in deploying the infrastructures that provide access to cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity. Significantly in this case, we’re also specialists in designing and building these networks within confined, complex spaces, and in planning for growing capacity requirements: we know demands on our networks will increase over time and we plan accordingly. Our goal in Toronto is to create a transit experience that sets a global standard for innovation, performance and safety.

In this post, we’ll look more closely at our experience of building in underground transit environments, discussing the challenges faced and the future planning involved, the unique nature of the Toronto project, and the results we’ve delivered to date.

A foundation of global experience

Transit Wireless, a majority-owned BAI Communications company, built the wireless network for New York City’s subway system which carries 1.8 billion passengers a year between 282 underground stations. The network runs hundreds of miles of fibre optic cables, 7,000+ antenna connection points, 5,000 Wi-Fi access points and five data centres, supporting the four major US wireless carriers and public safety services. The network also supports 1,200 intercom help points that connect passengers directly to live information and emergency services.

The planning took into account a subway that is over 100 years old, runs 24/7 and concurrent engineering and repair work. Like any underground transit system, there are fluctuating temperatures, brake dust and high-powered hose cleaning, all of which required us to create customized components. Nevertheless, the project was completed two years early.

Elsewhere, we’ve been at the leading edge of innovation in new public transport builds. In 2016, Radio Frequency Engineering (RFE), a BAI Communications company, completed work with the Hong Kong Transit Authority on the South Island Line. This system includes a fleet of driverless trains, so our network provides the authorities with live remote monitoring of carriage and platform activity and streams real-time passenger information to the trains.

In our work around the globe, we’ve learned that our networks are not only a source of convenience and reassurance for commuters: they’re unlocking benefits and possibilities across safety, service and innovation. Which brings us to our work in Toronto.

Working within an existing structure

The TTC project provided a unique set of challenges. Today’s subway system is the backbone of the modern city, depended upon by millions; it is closed for less than four hours a day. The first challenge, therefore, was working around passenger, employee and engineering needs. “You have a very limited window of time that can be considered as functional work time,” says Patrick Grieve, an operations implementation manager with BAI Canada.

Grieve goes on to explain that the project laid bare the age and complexity of the underground system. “Not all parts of the subway were constructed at the same time, meaning not all stations are alike,” he says. “Thus, we had to adapt every station to work with the design as well as keeping the quality coverage standards we had set.”

Further, BAI Canada’s CEO Ken Ranger points out that the system pre-dates any concept of wireless networks by decades. “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,” he says. “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.”

The great adaptability and ingenuity required by the project is a source of inspiration for our team. Building this innovative new network inside of an historical system was a lesson in the tremendous advancements in human demand and technological capacity: a reminder that our needs will continue to shift and grow.

Designing for the future

Ranger confirms that today’s engineers must have an eye on tomorrow. “Working on a metro that is 60+ years old … gave us a great focus on future proofing,” he says. “Technology has changed and continues to change quickly and this is something we are very aware of, as are our customers. 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.”

Grieve adds, “We have spent many, many hours trying to understand the future needs of many parts of the subway, from Wi-Fi offerings to providing full-scale network interconnect for the fare card payment systems. We have built something that is so much more than just a Wi-Fi network or just a cellular network.”

For BAI Canada, the achievements of the TTC project are a model for the future of wireless networks. The biggest story is the project’s scale, says Jeremy Foran, a BAI Canada Technology Specialist. “In Wi-Fi networks you typically have a small, medium and large-type deployment, and then a football stadium is considered extra large – that’s 80,000 people coming and needing to use the Wi-Fi simultaneously. We have a football stadium’s worth of people passing through our network every hour.”

Of course, it isn’t just the size of the user base that distinguishes this network, but the speed and synchronicity of the users’ connection. Moving through a station, a commuter doesn’t have the time to log in that they might in a coffee shop. They want to get online in seconds, says Foran. “We need to authenticate them as quickly as possible or we may not get a chance to engage them. This has led to us optimizing that portion of the experience far beyond what is typically done in other networks.”

This optimization is especially important during rush hour, when a packed train comes into a station, its doors open and a crowd of people step onto the platform, all attempting to sync with the network in the same moment. To reflect this unique user flow, we’ve adapted our login process: now it manages the steep uptick in logins seamlessly, whereas previously the conventional process would have responded to the heightened traffic by suspecting fraud and making authentication challenges impossibly complex.

Proud to deliver for Toronto

By the end of 2017, the cellular infrastructure build was complete and activated in all TTC stations. “Our biggest achievement has to be the timeframe in which we were able to deliver the Wi-Fi and cellular network into all stations,” says Grieve. “There was so much work that had to go into this and to turn it around in the time we did makes me extremely proud.”

Ultimately, the reliability and speed of the cellular and wireless services are what bring most gratification to the BAI Canada team who built the system. Foran says, “We are constantly monitoring the performance of our network to deliver the very best user experience possible, which often delivers higher bandwidth than the users might have available at home.” And knowing fellow Torontonians “can make or receive that all-important call*,” says Grieve, “makes me grin from ear to ear.”

*cellular connectivity allowing for making or receiving calls currently available to Freedom Mobile users.