Ice Wireless cracks in Yukon

The Yukon’s Ice age was short-lived. After less than 13 months in business, northern-based cellphone company Ice Wireless will shut down its…

The Yukon’s Ice age was short-lived.

After less than 13 months in business, northern-based cellphone company Ice Wireless will shut down its Whitehorse network on Friday.

The closure leaves nearly 300 customers without cellphone service and two Whitehorse-based employees without jobs.

It also leaves just one choice for cell service in the territory — Bell Canada and its subsidiary companies, Northwestel and Latitude Wireless.

“We have not been able to get enough customers to get it going,” said Ice Wireless president Tom Zubko.

“We just didn’t see the Whitehorse market developing for us, and the partners, jointly, were not willing to put more money into it.”

The company had a rocky start last December because some customers experienced problems with the company’s service.

“Good or bad — word of mouth is strong, especially in the Yukon,” said Ice Wireless chair Stephen Mills.

Mills is also the president of the Vuntut Development Corp., which co-owns Ice Wireless with New North Networks and the Yukon Indian Development Corporation.

Another reason Ice faltered was because the company lost the Yukon government contract to provide cellphone service to the territory’s 17 communities.

In December 2005, that contract went to Latitude Wireless, which is a partnership between Northwestel, which is wholly owned by Bell Canada, and the Dakwakada Development Corporation, the business-investment arm of the Champagne/Aishihik First Nations.

Latitude opened in June 2006, and completed its community hook-up in December.

“We were at a competitive disadvantage considering we were not successful on that government bid,” said Mills.

“We felt very strongly that we would get that contract for a few reasons,” said Mills.

First, Ice runs on a GMS platform, which is a newer technology.

Second, it’s less expensive to install the infrastructure, like towers.

“We had tried to get the Yukon government to disclose some of the aspect of the contract, but it was never forthcoming,” said Mills.

“There was no requirement for them to disclose any of the bid information so we have no idea how it was structured — whether or not it was subsidized by Northwestel or Bell Canada.”

Ice will continue its service in the Northwest Territories, where it currently has offices in Yellowknife and Inuvik.

“We have a different situation here,” said Zubko, from the company’s Yellowknife office.

“We don’t have subsidized competition in the community over here.”

Currently, Bell/NMI Mobility offers cell service in Inuvik, Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith in the NWT.

There is not an equivalent to Latitude Wireless in that territory, said Chris McNutt, manager of marketing and communications for Latitude and NMI Mobility.

And there are no plans for NMI to expand the coverage area in NWT.

Whitehorse resident Atlin Shopland is among the nearly 300 customers whose phones will become useless in the Yukon as of 4 p.m. Friday.

“It’s really disappointing,” she said.

“It was nice to know I was supporting a northern-owned business, not ‘Ma Bell’ from down south,” said Shopland.

“As far as the government opening things up for competition, it just doesn’t seem to be happening.”

Shopland discovered the service was closing down on Wednesday when she called the Whitehorse office to add more minutes onto her phone plan.

“At that point I was shocked,” she said.

“I didn’t hear from (Ice Wireless); the only information I got was from me contacting them.”

Shopland received her first $100 phone from Ice in July, and added a second in December.

“We were happy with the service, so when my husband needed one we just added his on a month ago.”

Shopland phoned the company’s head office in Yellowknife and spoke to Zubko, who promised her a 50-per-cent refund on her first phone and a 100-per-cent refund on the second.

Under Ice’s service, customers purchased their phones and then paid a monthly charge for service. They did not have to sign a contract.

“We decided to partially reimburse people who had signed up and paid their bills after June 1st,” said Zubko.

People who signed up before June had several months of free service, but Zubko would not explain why.

“We felt they had adequately benefited from the service,” said Zubko.

In the world of cell service there are two major platforms that work like VHS and BETA tapes; they are not compatible.

Both the Latitude and Bell/NMI networks use CDMA and are compatible, so customers of either service can roam and use the other’s network.

Ice Wireless works on a different system, so customers who bought a phone from the company cannot tap into the Bell system.

The Ice phones can connect to the Rogers system in southern Canada.

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