Toronto airport shuts off cell phone service

Canada, which last year celebrated its wireless heritage as the site of the first trans-Atlantic radio transmission, this week set another wireless record: one of its airports began shutting off cellular telephone service over what carriers say is a fight over revenue sharing.

Though the cell phone shutdown at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport is believed to be the first instance of an airport taking such drastic action, Jeff Kagan, an Atlanta-based wireless communications analyst, said it might not be the last. Airport operators, which once collected hefty revenues from now little-used pay phones, are looking to make up the shortfall from cellular carriers.

So far, according to Rich Blasi, a spokesman for Redmond, Wash.-based AT&T Wireless Services Inc., similar problems haven’t cropped up at other airports.

In order to provide wireless service in an airport, cellular carriers install indoor antennas and associated electronics throughout the facility, Louis Turpen, president of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) said in a statement. That equipment, Turpen said, needs to be upgraded.

The authority decided to shut down cell service because the carriers “refused to make the required investment it improve the service.”

Turpen said the four Canadian carriers – Bell Mobility, Telus Mobility, Microcell Telecommunications and Rogers AT&T Wireless Inc. – provide travellers with what he called “antiquated cellular telecommunications service.” The companies’ licenses to provide cellular service at Pearson expired at the end of last month, and since then, the GTAA has started a gradual shutdown of the airport cellular infrastructure.

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association disputed Turpen’s take, saying in a statement that the problem arose from a demand by the GTAA for an increase in revenue “of up to 500 percent and control of public wireless facilities” at Pearson.

Kagan said the GTAA’s hard line with the carriers would backfire with its customers, the traveling public.

“They’re going to have a huge backlash by interfering with the public’s right to communicate,” he said. Inconvenienced travellers aren’t going to care about the nuances of a contract dispute; they’re just going to be frustrated with an inability to communicate while trapped in an airport.

Turpen said the GTAA “is always willing to work with anyone committed to the provision of a service that meets the high standards demanded by the travelling public and the airport community.”

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