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Northern internet: creaking along at a high price

Internet in the North is much more expensive than in the South and can often be painfully slow.“The service is up and down,” said…

Internet in the North is much more expensive than in the South and can often be painfully slow.

“The service is up and down,” said Whitehorse-based technology consultant Andrew Robulack.

“If you’re online at one in the morning it’s great, but if you’re actually trying to do some work and be productive midmorning, it’s Stone Age.”

The service is more likely to be poor if you haven’t yet made the switch to cable internet from the copper-telephone-wire-based Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL).

“I noticed over the past couple of years the ADSL service has really been degrading,” said Robulack.

 “It’s partially just the number of users who are going online for high-speed services.

“And the equipment that they’re using for ADSL is older and has run its course and they don’t want to upgrade the stuff, so the service level there is just going to suffer for a long time.”

About a year ago, Northwestel bought WHTV cable, rechristened it Northwestel Cable and immediately sank $1 million into upgrading the system.

These upgrades should be completed within days, said Northwestel spokesperson Anne Kennedy.

“We are putting a lot of emphasis on it because generally it’s recognized in the industry that cable is a superior platform,” she said.

“We can offer higher speeds and have two services running over the same system, which leads to operational efficiencies on our end.

“And we can pass those savings on to our customers.”

In April, the company launched a slew of new cable internet packages that offered download speeds twice as fast as ADSL and up to seven times faster than wireless.

The improvements were “the first of a number of new services that will be introduced to our customers in 2008,”  according to the April news release.

While Kennedy declined to comment on what these new services might be, she did say that a number of announcements would be made this fall.

“My understanding is that their long-term strategy is trying to migrate their customers over to Northwestel Cable from ADSL,” said Robulack.

Northwestel won’t be phasing ADSL service out in the foreseeable future, said Kennedy.

“Those are still our customers so we wouldn’t be just letting it go and not look after that part of the business,” she said.

“But we’re definitely investing in the cable network because of what you can do on that platform and some of the new services that we’ll be announcing this fall and winter will clearly demonstrate that.”

The higher-than-average prices that are charged in the North have to do with market size, said Kennedy.

“We need the same infrastructure but we just have fewer people to help maximize the investment than down South in the larger centres.”

One way to try to bring down internet costs in the North would be through the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, said Robulack.

Since 2000, the commission has subsidized voice networks in the North with money gathered by taxing services in the South.

“Without the subsidy we’d all be paying about $120 on our telephone bills,” said Robulack.

“Right now, northerners are paying full price for internet access. That’s why it’s so expensive and sucks so bad.”

The commission is currently holding hearings to look into net neutrality or how much providers charge for internet usage.

However, there is currently no form of subsidy that can be applied to the internet service, said Kennedy.

The subsidy program was implemented to bring telephone service to under served or un served areas and reduce long-distance rates.

“If you look at the Yukon right now, the Yukon has the highest access to internet in communities in the country,” she said.

“We’re actually leading the way.”

This is because of the Connect Yukon Program, which sought successfully to bring high speed internet to every community in the Yukon.

About a year ago, Stewart Crossing was the last community in the Yukon to get internet service.

Even Eagle Plains is connected, despite its remote location and the fact it’s not even considered a community.

Some communities in BC and Northern Ontario have not achieved this yet.

But no matter how good the system becomes in the North, it will always be limited by the territory’s single connection with Edmonton.

“That’s where the weakest point is and you can feel it; at peak times it just grinds to a halt,” said Robulack.

“That’s not local infrastructure; that’s just the fact that we’re at capacity with local bandwidth into the territory.”

“We’re always looking at network investment and redundancy as well but it’s a huge capital expense,” said Kennedy.

“In the world, where we are with bandwidth consumption right now is far exceeding forecasts from 10 years ago.

“So all telecommunications companies around the world are dealing with this — how do you keep up?”

It would cost roughly $70,000 per kilometre to create a second connection with the South, said Kennedy.

That price could be even higher right now because of high fuel prices and world demand for fibre optic cable.

“The internet is the core of the modern economy so it’s important that we look at these issues,” said Robulack.

“They’re pretty serious issues.”