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What Are the Pros and Cons of Cell Phone Service on Subway Platforms?

Phone and internet access is bound to be a mixed bag.

Photo by {a href=""}Fion N.{/a}, from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

The TTC is considering hiring a contractor to bring cell-phone service to subway platforms, as we learned earlier this week. While nothing is final yet—the TTC’s board will discuss the proposal on Wednesday, and even if they approve it, the work probably won’t be done for two years—it’s not unreasonable to expect that all of us will, at some point in the not-too-distant future, be checking Twitter while waiting for our trains. The TTC has been working on bringing cell access to platforms for years.

It doesn’t hurt that this proposal will be easy for Toronto politicians to like, at least from a financial standpoint. The prospective provider of all the equipment, Broadcast Australia Pty Ltd., would actually be paying the commission $25 million over 20 years. The idea is for the company to make back its money by charging cell carriers for access to the network.

That’s all to the good, but there is an unanswered question in all of this: Do we necessarily want or need cell-phone access while we’re underground?

See below for a list of some of the pros and cons, as they occurred to us.

(Some ideas were suggested by Torontoist contributors and commenters. Those are marked with names.)


  • Obvious, but important: There will no longer be any need to leave a subway platform in order to fire off some kind of urgent message. Commuters will never again need to choose between being late for a meeting, or making themselves even later by dashing up to surface level to call and make an excuse.
  • We’ll be able to use Rocket Radar and NextBus in stations, finally. Smartphone users will know exactly how fast they need to jog up escalators in order to make their surface connections.
  • Similarly, the TTC might be able to push out its own service alerts to subway riders’ smartphones. [Suggested by Laurence Lui]
  • QR codes on subway advertisements will actually serve a purpose. [Suggested by Laurence Lui]
  • The average wait for a subway probably falls somewhere in the three- to five-minute range. That also happens to be the length of many YouTube cat videos.
  • Internet access might make it easier to arrange subway flashmobs. [Suggested by Rachel Lissner]
  • If anything terrible happens on a subway platform late at night, we’ll no longer have to pray that those little wall-mounted intercom things actually work.
  • We’ll be able to see and share breaking news while underground. [Suggested by Stephanie DePetrillo]
  • Torontonians will have one fewer excuse to continue travelling in cars when it’s not absolutely necessary. [Suggested by Paul Kishimoto]


  • Obvious, but important: platforms will be louder than they currently are. The zen-like silence of a midmorning subway wait will be shattered, probably forever.
  • Just as we’ll be able to make urgent calls, we’ll also be able to receive them. The final respite from the 24-hour news and work cycle will be gone.
  • The contractor will have to negotiate with carriers individually, meaning some cell phones may not work on platforms even after the whole system is up and running. [Suggested by Rachel Lissner]
  • Internet access might make it easier to arrange subway flashmobs. [Suggested by Rachel Lissner]
  • The risk of terrorism on the TTC may increase slightly, because cell phones can be used to activate explosives. [Suggested by Laurence Lui]
  • Riders will no longer be able to use “I’m losing reception” as an excuse for ending a conversation. [Suggested by Stephanie DePetrillo]
  • People talking on cell phones may be less aware of their surroundings, which could lead to subway-related injuries. [Suggested by James D Paterson]

If any other pros or cons occur to you, leave them in the comments. We’ll add them to the post, with credit to you, if they seem plausible.

And then, in a few years, maybe we’ll see who was right.


  • James D Paterson

    Risk of accidents can potentially increase, in that people inadvertently walk off the ledge while busy talking or texting, which in turn increases delays.

    • Anonymous

      In which case the blame lies entirely with the presence of cellphone service and has nothing to do with the phone user’s personal responsibility.

      • James D Paterson

        No, that wasn’t my intention. Yes, if someone happens like that, it is entirely the person’s fault, and whatever happens to them is well deserved.
        My comment was merely to point out that accidents caused by idiots result in delays for the rest of us. In no way was I blaming the TTC or service provider for it.

        • Anonymous

          Then it’s not really one of the cons of cell service on platforms in itself. People already do a pretty good job of getting themselves into trouble by being inattentive and causing delays, so whether cell service actually increases the risk of accidents is not the issue, and not a reason to discount the usefulness of cell service.

          • James D Paterson

            The possibility of cell service increasing the risk of accidents is exactly the issue.
            To make it simple, if we have two delays every two hours because of the general incompetency of your average person, and that jumps to five delays every two hours once cell service is installed, then having a connection is precisely the issue.
            However, only time will tell whether it has an affect or not. It’s still a potential con as opposed to a pro by a long shot.

          • Anonymous

            if we have two delays every two hours because of the general incompetency of your average person, and that jumps to five delays every two hours once cell service is installed, then having a connection is precisely the issue
            Yes, if. There’s no reason to assume that that will be the case and if we’re going to start arguing that there is even a correlation, we should be looking at before-and-after stats for other systems that have introduced underground cell service. People already walk around looking at their phones at TTC stations – how frequently does someone walk off the platform now? How often does it happen on outdoor GO platforms?

  • Jason Carlin

    As was pointed out to me, cell service provides an improved sense of personal safety: you can be in touch with a friend if you’re in an uncomfortable situation, call ahead for a ride, keep in touch with your kids if they’re travelling.

  • Stephanie DePetrillo

    con: no longer being able to use the “I’m losing reception” excuse to get out of conversations

  • Stephanie DePetrillo

    Pro: You can stream radio shows, music, and video while waiting for the bus/subway.

    • Anonymous

      Con: Teenagers will stream radio shows, music, and video and play it loud enough for everyone else to hear.

      • Stephanie DePetrillo

        Pro: People can stream things like Felix Baumgartner jumping from the edge of the earth and sharing it with the passengers around them, breaking the stare off into space zombie-like trance people are in on the subway.

        • Anonymous

          Con: Strangers will try showing you videos about crap you don’t care about, then get offended if you’d rather not pretend to be interested.

          (Just imagine the guy who gets on the southbound train from St George in the morning, who rants about the education system conspiring to keep aliens a secret: Now he can shove a YouTube video in your face.)

          • Stephanie DePetrillo

            Pro: Strangers will show you videos or information you had no idea existed that you find interesting.

          • Anonymous

            Con: Strangers will show you videos or information you had no idea existed that you don’t find interesting. (…and which is more likely?)

          • Anonymous

            Phone/internet service isn’t going to change transit into convivial video swap-meets any more than it has other public spaces.

      • Randy McDonald

        They don’t do that already with pre-recorded media?

        • Stephanie DePetrillo

          That’s true, I’m using the example of the Baumgartner jump because I was actually streaming it in a restaurant, and strangers came over to sneak a peek. Maybe I’m romanticizing just a tiny bit because I’d really like to see our public spaces (especially those in the subway system where people are so close to each other) become a little more social.

  • Paul Kishimoto

    Most obvious ‘pro’: one fewer excuse for people to continue travelling in cars.

    Why peer into the gift horse’s mouth when the most common response to, “Take transit!” is, “Improve the experience!” ?

  • Anonymous

    You can already get service alerts on a smartphone (as e-mail), you’ll just get them sooner.

    You can (unfortunately) use other things to set off bombs; cellphones don’t need cell service to do so.

  • Ratazana

    Slightly off topic but are we selling ourselves short w/ $25M over 20 years? HK model: selling a yearly license to each wireless operator for the rights to use the subway tunnels and stations for their network. Operators have to build their own network. It’s reported that the HK wireless operators each pays about $3M US annually for the license. Let’s imagine we only get $1M from each operator and let’s say only 3 sign up (Bell, Telus, Rogers). That’s $3M a year (with possible rate increase in future years) vs $25M/20years=$1.25M/year!

  • Anonymous

    I just updated the post with a few new pros and cons. I’ll keep adding more as they come in, so don’t hold back if you’ve got a good one.

    If yours wasn’t included in this batch, it’s because it was already covered.

  • Adamn Man Handla

    I can already see the large amount of idiots texting and walking then literally walking into the train tracks. It’s happened before..

  • Bruce Gavin Ward

    pro: big upSwing in evolutionary culling, eliminating the zombie walkers.
    les platform trafic, less congestion; oh yes, less revenue…..

  • Bruce Gavin Ward

    con; how can Bell, Rogers, and Telus figure out a way to charge for subterranean data, in order to recoup their costs? [poor babies]

  • Walter Lis

    Ohmygawd!! No more excuses for not taking public transit for Rob Ford (well, one at least). The no reception for his cell phone on the subway excuse will be gone.

  • Anonymous

    Loud-talkers shouting at their phones held a foot in front of their jowls. Oh, delight.

  • OgtheDim

    I’d like to point out that this service only requires that 60% of current cell phone users in Canada have access.

    In other words:

    If you are not on Telus, Bell or Rogers, the TTC doesn’t care about your safety.

  • MostlyCivil

    Con: Creepy bastards watching porn as they sit a little too close. How has nobody thought of this?