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TTC to go wireless with ads on subway

By SIMON AVERY
TECHNOLOGY REPORTER

The TTC plans to be the first public transit system in North America to bring television and digital advertising onto its underground platforms and into its subway trains.

The Internet-based wireless network, which relies on the same Wi-Fi technology used to create ”hot spots” for surfing the Web in cafes and airport lounges, will be deployed on a test basis this spring. Eventually, it could allow riders to use their own laptops or handheld computers on the subway.

It is being developed by Onestop Network — a Toronto-based private firm that has just hired former premier Mike Harris as chairman — with several partners.

“I think this has got great potential, not only here in Toronto but also across North America,” said Mr. Harris, who joined Onestop in return for an equity stake in the company.

It plans to deliver “smart ads” as well as news, weather and continuing commuter updates from the Toronto Transit Commission.

The new form of advertising, aimed at a captive audience of about 850,000 people, will include customized messages based on the TTC rider’s location.

So it will not just promote a pizza franchise, for example, but also give walking directions to the nearest pizza store.

Likewise, a cold day could mean ads for hot chocolate at the local coffee shop.

The ads will occupy half of each screen. On the other half, viewers will see news and weather information updated as the train passes through each station.

There will be four 17-inch screens in each car, and up to eight 40-inch screens on each platform.

CHUM Ltd. has agreed to provide feeds of its CityPulse24 news channel in return for special advertising rates.

With the average platform waiting time between three and four minutes, and the average train ride 17 minutes in length, a challenge will be to find the best way to engage viewers in short cycles. CHUM plans to use viewer feedback to help tailor the delivery of content and will also be looking at ways of creating interactive programming, said Susan Arthur, director of marketing for CHUM.

Grant Waddell, who looks after subway advertising for the TTC, said the service will begin a three-month trial in May or June and will be the first of its kind in North America. The TTC will invite public comments before making its final decision on the service, he said.

“This is a system that’s going to change the face of advertising,” said Michael Girgis, president and chief executive officer of Onestop.

TTC officials were unavailable to discuss other services that could eventually run on the wireless network, but analysts in the telecommunications industry said the real potential in the project lies with offering interactive services, which could allow people to connect their own computers to the network.

Eventually, Onestop hopes to add these kind of services and it is already working with a major phone company, said James Sbrolla, a partner in the project. “You’re putting a computer on a train and can package onto it anything you want, and it’s all on a wireless network.”

Mr. Harris added, “This whole field is moving so quickly that what was deemed to be miraculous one year is routine the next, so [the potential] is unlimited.”

In Montreal, BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada, the country’s largest phone company, is conducting trials on the subway system to allow commuters to make phone calls from underground, using Bell’s cellular network.

Onestop, which is still raising capital, is spending several million dollars on its infrastructure. The TTC will receive 10 per cent of ad revenue and is guaranteed a minimum of $750,000 over the life of the seven-year contract.

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