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Critics slam NorthwesTel plan

NorthwesTel's modernization plan still leaves northerners in the dark, according to the telco's harshest critics. The plan was on trial this week at a hearing of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

NorthwesTel’s modernization plan still leaves northerners in the dark, according to the telco’s harshest critics.

The plan was on trial this week at a hearing of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which wrapped up in Whitehorse yesterday.

The five-year, $233-million plan aims to bring 4G cellular service to almost every Yukon community, as well as a host of other upgrades.

NorthwesTel was directed to undertake the plan after a damning 2011 CRTC decision that found that while shareholders have done rather well, telecommunications service to northerners continues to lag significantly behind what others in the country expect in terms of price, quality and reliability.

But the level of intensity of capital investment offered by the modernization plan is similar to NorthwesTel’s level of investment over the last decade, according to numbers provided by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

And NorthwesTel has indicated that it will only make investment where there is a business case to do so. Should revenues fall, northerners may not see the promised upgrades on time or at all.

“We have all heard that this is an extraordinary problem, that there is not a business case for an entire territory ... so my question is this: Is Bell (Canada, parent company of NorthwesTel) at any point willing to take an extraordinary view to investment into the North that is not proportionate to its normal expectations?” asked Commissioner Stephen Simpson close to the end of yesterday’s hearing.

“We seem to be looking at a modernization plan that’s being heavily criticized as a catch-up plan, not a go-forward plan. So do extraordinary needs and extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures?”

“You know, I do take issue with the notion that somehow this plan is a catch-up plan,” replied Paul Flaherty, CEO of NorthwesTel. “There is technology evolving. I gave the example the other day of North Frontenac, 100 kilometres outside of Ottawa. It doesn’t have services that we have put into Fort Resolution, Aklavik, Fort Simpson, Norman Wells - all communities that are much smaller than that.”

He added that the level of investment proposed in the modernization plan is indeed extraordinary.

“I do think the parent (Bell Canada) has stepped up and allowed us a level of investment obviously much greater than what they do within their market.”

What level of service are northerners entitled to? Is it right that Internet service should be of lesser quality and cost more in places where it is more expensive to deliver? These questions were central to the three-day hearing.

From NorthwesTel’s perspective, the regulator cannot compel the company to provide service where it is not profitable to do so, unless it is willing to provide a subsidy for that purpose.

And indeed, NorthwesTel would cease to exist if it could not make money doing what it does.

But the arguments for equal, if not superior, access to communications services in remote communities is strong.

Telecommunications offer great hope for social and economic development.

Here in the Yukon, the Department of Education has touted Internet-based learning as key to closing the graduation gap between the communities and Whitehorse.

Yukon College, too, would like to see education transported out of the classroom and into communities, workplaces and homes.

Tools like teleconferencing level the playing field, allowing remote individuals and businesses to sit at the table of the new digital economy.

But one presenter at the CRTC hearing, who had planned to join by teleconference instead, resorted to a conference call, after being told that it would simply be too expensive to set up and run the televised link.

And CBC cancelled conferences planned for yesterday in Whitehorse and Iqaluit after learning that the technical capacity to establish a live link to Yellowknife could not be guaranteed.

As it stands, NorthwesTel is subsidized to provide basic service to communities where it may not be profitable to do so.

But basic service includes landline telephones and dial-up Internet, despite the fact that fewer and fewer individuals and businesses depend on these technologies.

Broadband Internet access in remote communities has been supported by ad-hoc subsidies and funding partnerships, but that money is set to dry up in 2016.

As it stands, all Yukon communities except Old Crow are connected to NorthwesTel’s terrestrial network, making them better off than much of the Northwest Territories and all of Nunavut, which are connected via expensive satellite links.

The Nunavut Broadband Development Corporation advocated at the hearing for broadband Internet to be considered a legal right, and for it to be delivered to all Nunavut communities at an affordable price.

Commissioner Candice Molnar asked if it is fair that telecommunications subscribers in the south, who may not have any broadband subsidy at all, should help to pay for broadband in the North.

“If you live with poor Internet access in a rural area one hour outside of Ottawa, for example, you still have access to many more goods and services, much sooner, than if you lived with better Internet access in a community in Nunavut, or indeed, other parts of the North,” replied Oana Spinu, executive director of the corporation, after having a day to think about the question.

“Given the current interest in the Arctic, its resources and waterways, from Canada and other nations, I think it is in the national interest to support healthy and strong communities in the North, and affordable and equitable broadband is a necessary requirement.

“So yes, I think it is fair to use revenue generated from telecommunication customers outside of the northern service area to support better telecommunication services, including broadband, in the North.

“And more broadly, I think it is the just thing to do to ensure that Arctic residents, and especially Inuit and First Nations residents, have the same opportunities for economic prosperity and social well-being as all Canadians.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at