Airport authority hangs up on wireless dispute

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) on Monday began began disconnecting the facilities of Canada’s four wireless carriers at Lester B. Pearson International Airport, raising the temperature on a dispute analysts say is part

of an ongoing battle for control between carriers and landowners in an era of increased competition.

The move to cut power to the facilities of Bell Mobility, Telus Mobility, Microcell Telecommunications Inc. and Rogers AT&T Wireless came after the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) last week rejected a request by the carriers to force the GTAA to keep the equipment running during lease renewal negotiations that have already dragged on for 15 months.

The GTAA claims the impasse relates to issues of coverage and service quality. Spokesman Peter Gregg said travelers and airport personnel consistently complain about service quality and that the carriers have shown no commitment to investing in infrastructure, including a new terminal and a new infield terminal the GTAA is building.

“”I think the dispute comes down to improving the service and improving the service comes down to investing in infrastructure,”” Gregg said. “”We have seen no interest from the carriers to invest in the infrastructure.””

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Authority (CWTA), which represents the carriers, argues the dispute is not over service quality, but rather the onerous demands being made by the GTAA. The CWTA contends that it has so far spent $8.5 million on wireless infrastructure at Pearson, and claims that while the carriers already serve the public areas of the airport, the GTAA has made excessive demands relating to connecting the airport’s private areas.

“”Every time that we thought we had reached a deal, the terms were unreasonable,”” said CWTA spokesman Marc Choma. “”We never left the negotiating table and the airport has shut off service.””

Ian Angus, principal of Ajax, Ont.-based Angus Telemanagement Group, said the dispute is indicative of the growing schism between telecom carriers on one side and landlords and cities on the other. He said telcos, as common carriers, have had historic rights to put infrastructure where they want, and that cities and landlords were previously reluctant to challenge telcos when they had monopoly power. But as competition has come to the telecommunications market, both landlords and municipalities have been trying, before the CRTC and courts, to get payment for access to their tenants and citizens.

“”The issue ultimately is who are the gatekeepers for communications? As one discovers, when you move out of the monopoly word, there are an awful lot of gatekeepers,”” Angus said. “”The (GTAA) dispute is not about whether cell phones can work in the airport, but about who should pay what to make it work in the airport.””

Angus pointed to the case of Ledcor Industries Ltd., now 360 Networks Inc., and the City of Vancouver. The CRTC in early 2001 denied Vancouver the ability to charge Ledcor market rents or access fees for the right to occupy the city’s rights-of-way.

J. Bruce Melville, an expropriation attorney with the British Columbia firm Peterson Stark Scott, said that while there are parallels in the cases, the GTAA was able to win over the CRTC by convincing the regulator that no danger existed in shutting off power to the wireless carriers as the airport’s emergency systems are separate from the cellular systems. On Monday, the GTAA also announced it would until further notice foot the bill for all local pay phone calls made from Pearson’s terminals.

While both parties say they want to negotiate an agreement, a city which is getting used to service interruptions will probably have to deal with one more for the foreseeable future. Melville suggested the carriers could try to provide service to the airport through nearby antennae.

“”There’s probably some room there for bargaining if the airport’s demanding too much,”” he said. “”In most cases, the telco can probably find another landlord somewhere else, on better terms.””

Indeed, Choma said the carriers are looking at alternate ways of providing service, but neither he nor representatives from the carriers were able to provide more detailed information at press time.

Angus said the airport could not stop the carriers from sending a signal, provided they abided by power restrictions determined by Industry Canada.

“”Once they’ve got a tower in there, there’s lot of things they can do with radio,”” he said. “”They can add more power, more cells from the edges.””

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