Local phone competition arrives and it’s about freaking time

It was a year ago, almost to the day, that I welcomed an early Christmas gift to the North from Canada's telephone regulator, the CRTC: the end of NorthwesTel's telephone monopoly.

It was a year ago, almost to the day, that I welcomed an early Christmas gift to the North from Canada’s telephone regulator, the CRTC: the end of NorthwesTel’s telephone monopoly.

Unfortunately, that present’s been sitting unopened under the tree ever since. It’s only with this holiday season that we’re finally able to tear the gift wrap away.

And what’s inside?

Why, it’s local phone services in Whitehorse and other major northern cities, care of Iristel, an Ontario-based “global phone company.”

We are no longer restricted to purchasing fixed-line phone numbers in the 867 area code from just one company. At long last, there is an alternative.

So in the true holiday spirit, I declare: hallelujah!

Iristel is bringing a lower-cost product to our northern market that promises both business and home customers a larger and much more advanced feature set than we’re accustomed to.

Iristel claims that your total monthly costs will drop by 50 per cent. I did a cursory comparison of costs between NorthwesTel and Iristel’s services and found that to be true in one case only.

If you’re currently a multi-line business customer with Northwestel – with a Centrex solution, for example – you could literally cut your monthly bills in half, maybe even more, with Iristel.

But be aware: that refers to service costs only.

Iristel uses a completely different line technology, so you might be faced with some stiff up-front costs to replace your hardware, including your handsets and speakerphones.

It would be wise to perform a thorough cost analysis.

Other telephone solutions will net you savings with Iristel, but not quite to the same extent.

A single business line with Iristel will cut your costs by about 35 per cent every month.

And Iristel can deliver a home phone line about 15 per cent below NorthwesTel’s new Cable Home Phone service rates with an average set of features.

It’s worth noting, too, that Iristel’s per-minute long distance rates are generally less than half of what NorthwesTel charges, thought both companies offer roughly equivalent long distance packages.

There’s something truly remarkable tucked away in Iristel’s lower service prices, however.

Every telephone line the company provisions to northerners is subject to a monthly $20 NorthwesTel Tax. (Actually, Iristel calls this the “North Access Fee,”

but I like my name better.)

That’s a cost that Iristel is required by the CRTC to charge consumers in order to hook into NorthwesTel’s infrastructure.

Somehow, though, even faced with such a swift kick to the you-know-whats, Iristel is managing to deliver superior service at rates cheaper than the incumbent.

Go figure.

Cost reduction is only one aspect of the Iristel gift. The underlying technology is key to what makes this present extra special.

Which leads to an important matter you’ll have to keep in mind when considering Iristel: you must have an internet connection to use their services.

Iristel uses “VoIP”.

That stands for “Voice over Internet Protocol,” so your telephone calls will travel the same roads as web pages if you adopt an Iristel solution.

Iristel’s vice-president of operations, Maged Bishara, assures me that their service isn’t a glorified Skype clone, however. Call quality will be every bit as good as, if not better than, what you currently get from NorthwesTel.

“We have to be good,” Mr. Bishara said. Otherwise, customers will just go back to NorthwesTel, of course.

What’s more, VoIP uses minimal data so there’s little chance you’ll get slapped with any NorthwesTel data over-use penalties and have to re-mortgage your house.

Still, our concern should be drawn to the fact that there remains a digital divide in the North.

Many northerners have Internet connections in their homes, but not all.

It’s still just too expensive.

Recognizing that Iristel is introducing a type of service into the North that’s quickly becoming a standard in the rest of the world, there is no denying that VoIP is the future for us (heck, even NorthwesTel is pushing its customers that way).

It’s more important than ever now that Internet prices in the North be driven down to affordable levels so that everyone can leverage the benefits of VoIP.

Because once you’re in the realm of pure Internet data with VoIP, anything is possible.

For example, when Iristel’s partnership with Yellowknife-based ICE Wireless flowers in the Yukon next spring, we’ll have access to a suite of mobile and fixed-line phone options that will fully inter-operate.

These days, if you have a mobile phone in your pocket and a landline on your desk, you have two different phone numbers. If someone wants to reach you, they have to figure out where you are.

Through the magic of VoIP, though, those two phones can share a number. So your mobile phone and your desk phone can ring simultaneously with the same call. Heck, as many phones as you like can ring simultaneously with the same call.

What’s more, you can have messages left in your voice mail box delivered to you as email attachments. You can receive faxes the same way.

So, while at first glance Iristel’s telephone service appears to be just a cheaper version of the same-old-same-old that we’ve been spoon-fed by the incumbent for decades, it’s actually a first step into the next generation of telecommunications.

Sure, lower costs and more features alone are something to get excited about, but the fact that Iristel is delivering modern services to the North is where the true value of the company’s gift lies.

And Whitehorse is only the beginning. Iristel is already working to provide its services across the North, even in the smallest communities.

So that loud groaning sound you heard echoing across the North the other day? It was a dinosaur called NorthwesTel finally rolling out of its La-Z-Boy to face the fact that it’s going to have to start, you know, actually working to make its customers happy for a change.

Because, at long last, we can just walk across the street and take our business elsewhere.

And by across the street I mean either Mid Arctic Technology on Jarvis (668-6024) or the Polar Group on Strickland (668-2546).

Those are the two Whitehorse businesses acting as retail agents for Iristel. Contact them to learn more and get hooked up.

Of course, every gift looks glorious when freshly-opened and viewed in the light of a Christmas tree. Will Iristel live up to its promise?

I sure hope so. It would suck big time if we had to take this present back to the store and ask for a refund.

Andrew Robulack is a writer and consultant specializing in using technology and the Internet to communicate. Read his blog at www.geeklife.ca.