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NorthwesTel to expand wireless network

Throughout most of the territory, an iPhone is just a glorified iPod. Most cellphones, and almost all smartphones, simply don't work outside of Whitehorse. But not for long.

Throughout most of the territory, an iPhone is just a glorified iPod.

Most cellphones, and almost all smartphones, simply don’t work outside of Whitehorse. But not for long.

NorthwesTel is planning a major overhaul of its network.

“This is probably the most extensive communications upgrade ever taken in the North,” said president Paul Flaherty.

“What we’re going to do is make sure that all of the communities in the Yukon have access to the same next-generation technology.”

The $273-million plan will take five years to complete, but when it’s done, every one of the 96 communities in NorthwesTel’s service area will have access to high-speed Internet and 3G or 4G wireless services.

And it won’t cost consumers a dime, said Flaherty.

“It’s a game changer,” he said. “Really, it will put some of our smallest communities on par with some of the largest centres in Southern Canada in terms of the services that will be available.”

In addition to offering Internet and cellphone service throughout all the communities it serves, NorthwesTel will be boosting Internet speeds throughout the territory, expanding its fibre optic network all the way to Dawson City and replacing some of its aging land-line infrastructure.

The average age of the switches in NorthwesTel’s network is 17 years old. That’s ancient, in technological terms.

Embarking on this project wasn’t completely NorthwesTel’s idea.

Late last year the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ordered the telco to produce a modernization plan after lambasting it for its aging infrastructure and for failing “to make the necessary investments in its network.”

To fund part of the modernization plan, NorthwesTel, and its parent company, Bell Canada Enterprises, has asked the commission to allocate $40 million of the “public benefits” associated with Bell’s proposed $3.38-billion purchase of Astral Media.

Under the CRTC’s rules, any company purchasing a Canadian broadcaster has to set aside roughly 10 per cent of the purchase price for a “public benefits” fund.

Bell’s purchase of Astral Media has yet to be approved by the CRTC. Right now the commission is analyzing the proposal, including the plans for the benefit fund.

The fund is supposed to “yield measurable improvements to the communities served by the broadcasting undertaking and to the Canadian broadcasting system.”

“Asking to use some of the money to improve Internet and wireless services may meet will some resistance,” said Flaherty.

“There will be some in the broadcast community in the south that will take issue with that,” he said.

“Our argument is that more and more people are accessing broadcast content through the Internet. Whether it’s watching things like Netflix or something that’s been produced on YouTube, broadcasting takes on a whole new meaning with the Internet.”

But it’s not just southern broadcasters that are taking issue.

The fact that the improvement plan is being tied to Bell’s acquisition of Astral Media raises some red flags for Roger Rondeau, president of the Utilities Consumers Group.

“Is it about improving NorthwesTel’s aging infrastructure, or is it about Ma Bell purchasing Astral media?” he asked. “From first take, it looks like these telcos are stating that these northern improvements will depend on the CRTC’s approval of the mothership’s takeover plan.”

Without that $40 million from the fund, the modernization plan would still move forward, but it would have to be significantly scaled back, said Flaherty.

“I’m hopeful that northerners would see that this provides great opportunity,” he said.

“Even for northern broadcasters, it’s a way for them to get their content to customers.”

The CRTC is expected to open up the Astral sale and Bell’s public benefits plan for public comments in the next couple of weeks.

Getting the public to come out in support of the plan is critical, said Flaherty.

“We’re really going to have to encourage people to let the CRTC know they support this plan,” he said. “In terms of the North, I’d be amazed if people weren’t supportive.”

But some members of the public, like Rondeau, may be harder to sway than others.

While he thinks it’s a good thing that NorthwesTel is making plans to improve its cellphone and Internet services, Rondeau is dismayed by the fact that just this week the telco has asked for approval from the CRTC to hike rates for local phone service by $1.52 per month for the next five years.

That extra money would be used to pay for changes to NorthwesTel’s infrastructure that would allow for local competition.

But, since 2007, NorthwesTel has been receiving over $20 million in annual subsidies for its local phone service, Rondeau pointed out.

“Where did they spend this money?” he asked. “That’s what I’d like to know.”

Contact Josh Kerr at