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Telephone competition heats up

Ice Wireless is returning to the Yukon. The cellphone service provider plans to have operations up and running by late summer, said Cameron Zubko, vice-president of the Inuvik-based company.

Ice Wireless is returning to the Yukon.

The cellphone service provider plans to have operations up and running by late summer, said Cameron Zubko, vice-president of the Inuvik-based company.

Ice Wireless will be installing a GSM cellphone network in Whitehorse, which means that Rogers and Fido phones will work in the city. And, thanks to a partnership with another telco, Iristel Canada, they’ll be offering home phone service as well.

“With the activation of this network it effectively breaks Northwestel’s monopoly in their service area that they’ve had for decades,” said Zubko.

“The North is the last market to start allowing competitive telcos and it’s about time.

“Obviously we’re very proud to be part of this.”

A basic cellphone plan, which includes free evenings, weekends and texting, would cost $25 a month. An extra 60 minutes costs $5. “We have the cheapest minutes in Canada, I believe, or we used to,” said Zubko. Data rates have yet to be worked out.

Five years ago, after the government awarded the rights to build up the territories cellphone network to Northwestel, Ice Wireless packed up and left the Yukon.

Although cellphones work on microwave transmitters, they still need to connect to the Internet to get phone calls out.

Because Northwestel also controlled the fibre-optic link to the south, there was no way that Ice Wireless could operate, said Zubko.

“Essentially the cost of back haul was too high and what it meant was that we couldn’t compete with Bell (the owner of Northwestel),” he said.

But thanks to a series of decision by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the North has become much more friendly to competition.

Late last year, the CRTC stripped Northwestel of its monopoly on home phone service, while lambasting the company for under-investing in its aging network infrastructure.

But, while the regulatory restrictions were lifted, because Northwestel still controlled the fibre-optic link to the south, technical challenges remained.

“Essentially one of the main problems is that Northwestel owns the infrastructure and also competes on a retail level,” said Zubko. “That’s the main inhibitor to growth and competition in the North.”

But that’s changed now, too.

In January, the CRTC decided to start regulating Northwestel’s V-Connect service - the raw fibre-optic link to the south - and ordered the telco to perform a cost study to prove its pricing was fair.

It took a while, but in March Northwestel came up with a new service, Wholesale Connect, which will allow other companies to access its fibre-optic network.

“With Wholesale Direct reducing the pricing for bandwidth and back haul, things are possible that weren’t possible before,” said Zubko. “This changes everything really.

“If you do any comparison to old rates and the new rates, it’s night and day.”

For Ice Wireless, it means that they’ll be able to build their own cellphone network to compete with Northwestel.

The company already has one microwave installation set up on top of the clay cliffs, and it has plans to build three more this summer to cover the entire city.

“Right now we’re still in the testing phase,” said Zubko.

Ice Wireless is also building cellphone networks in Inuvik, Yellowknife, Iqaluit, Hay River, and Behchoko.

For the moment, the company is focused on larger northern communities. That’s because bandwidth rates, beyond what’s covered by the Wholesale Connect service, are still too expensive.

“We haven’t ruled out other communities in the Yukon, but it’s dependent on the cost of back haul, which are very high out of the smaller communities,” said Zubko. “The rates as proposed currently are definitely a good start in the larger centres, but in the smaller communities we have more work to do.”

While the cellphone network won’t be available until late summer, home service should be available sooner, thanks to the partnership between Ice Wireless and Iristel.

The VoIP phone service runs over the Internet, which means that customers will still need to have a high-speed Internet connection to access it. Otherwise, it works just like a regular phone, said Zubko.

“They can keep their same phone, they can keep their same phone number, they can keep everything about their phone that they like, the only difference is it plugs into a modem instead of plugging into a phone jack,” he said.

The price will also be lower, although Zubko couldn’t say by how much.

“Whatever Northwestel charges, we’ll be charging less,” he said. “There will be more money left in the people’s pockets when we’re finished.”

In the past, Northwestel has argued that there simply aren’t enough people in the North to have viable competition, but Zubko, who is originally from Inuvik, doesn’t believe that’s true.

“Being from the North myself, I have experienced everything that everyone else has in the North, high prices and lack of competition, which leads to less service quality,” he said. “Ice Wireless is a northern company started by northerners to serve the North.

“This is our home, so we’re determined to provide the best possible service to northerners that we can.”

Contact Josh Kerr at