Ice Wireless to melt monopoly

Touring the North was a real eye-opener, said Samer Bishay, president of Ice Wireless. "It's different looking at it on a map than to see it and experience it," he said.

Touring the North was a real eye-opener, said Samer Bishay, president of Ice Wireless.

“It’s different looking at it on a map than to see it and experience it,” he said.

The most shocking thing was seeing how “behind the times” many of the communities are when it comes to communications infrastructure. That’s not only bad for northerners, but bad for business as well, he said.

In the fall, Ice Wireless plans to roll out cellphone, Internet and landline services in six northern communities: Whitehorse, Inuvik, Yellowknife, Iqaluit, Hay River, and Behchoko. However, because of the age and state of NorthwesTel’s equipment, right now, only half of those communities can be serviced.

When the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission opened up the North to telephone competition last year, it also ordered NorthwesTel to update its equipment.

The CRTC found that the average age of NorthwesTel’s switches was 17 years.

Trying to tie a state-of-the-art network into such old equipment is pretty much impossible, said Cameron Zubko, the vice-president of Ice Wireless. Normally, after five years telecommunications equipment is considered obsolete.

Last month, NorthwesTel came out with its modernization plan.

After the five-year, $273-million project is complete, most of its switches will be replaced and every one of the 96 communities in NorthwesTel’s service area will have access to high-speed Internet and 3G or 4G wireless networks.

The telco plans on using the $20.5-million annual subsidy it gets from the CRTC to pay for a substantial portion of the plan. Its parent company, Bell Canada Enterprises, is asking the CRTC to approve another $40 million for the project.

That money would come out of the more than $200 million in public benefit funds Bell has to put aside to get approval for its $3.38-billion purchase of Astral Media.

This modernization plan is just a veiled attempt by NorthwesTel to shore up its monopoly in the North, said Zubko.

“If you’re going to use public money, at least have equal access to that fund so that companies that are qualified in the North can tap into it,” added Bishay.

There is nothing in the modernization plan that addresses the cost of backbone connectivity, which is the biggest barrier to competition, he said.

Wholesale bandwidth costs a thousand times more in the Yukon than it does in the south, and the quality of service, something essential for telephone service, isn’t guaranteed.

Regardless, Ice Wireless still plans on moving forward with its plans.

Thanks to a partnership with Iristel, a Canada-wide VoIP service provider Bishay founded in 1999, the cellphones that Ice Wireless uses will work seamlessly on both cellphone and WiFi networks. That means that while the company will only have cell towers in six communities, the phones will work anywhere in the North if there is a WiFi connection – and anywhere in the south where Rogers has a tower.

“What we’ve done in Canada is unparalleled as far as I’m concerned,” said Bishay. “Iristel has changed how telecom is being done, and we want to do the same up here.

“We want to offer a national service in Canada. There shouldn’t be any boundaries, they’re just a thing of the past.”

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