NorthwesTel unveils $233M in planned upgrades

By 2018 almost every northerner will be able to use an iPhone in their community. That's just one of the promises NorthwesTel made when it submitted its $233-million modernization plan

By 2018 almost every northerner will be able to use an iPhone in their community.

That’s just one of the promises NorthwesTel made when it submitted its $233-million modernization plan to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission earlier this week.

“This is the biggest investment we’ve ever made in the history of our company,” said Paul Flaherty, president of NorthwesTel.

He’s hopeful that northerners will see the merits of the plan and show their support in comments to the regulator.

“It’s important that the CRTC hear from people and understand that we’re hitting the mark, so to speak,” said Flaherty.

The plan would see 3G wireless services expanded to 99 per cent of the company’s service area.

In the Yukon, only Champagne and Swift River would be without cellphone service.

Features like call display would be available in all 96 communities that NorthwesTel services and Internet speeds would be improved.

In some cases, speeds would double or triple, said Flaherty.

Number portability would also be greatly expanded, allowing people to keep their old phone number if they decide to leave NorthwesTel and sign on with one of the telco’s growing number of competitors.

NorthwesTel would also expand its Internet transport system, Wholesale Connect, to 57 communities from 30.

Wholesale Connect allows third-party Internet providers and phone companies to buy bandwidth in bulk, which is vital for facilitating competition.

The only communities that won’t be covered by the service are those that are accessed by satellite.

Keno City will be the only exception.

“Basically, for all intents and purposes, in 100 per cent of terrestrial communities competitors will have access to that service,” said Flaherty.

The CRTC ordered NorthwesTel to produce this modernization plan after lambasting the telco for the age and quality of its network infrastructure in a decision issued in December 2011.

NorthwesTel first submitted a $273-million plan last year.

That plan included $40-million from its parent company Bell Canada Enterprises. That money would have been paid out from the public benefits fund associated with Bell’s $3.4-billion bid to buy Astral Media, a specialty TV and radio company.

The CRTC scuttled that deal, forcing NorthwesTel to go back to the drawing board.

“What we had to figure out was how to combine as much as we were trying to do, without that Astral funding,” said Flaherty. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job.”

NorthwesTel is also partnering with other companies to make this plan happen.

“We’ve partnered with Falcon Communications and they’re going to bring, along with Infrastructure Canada, $15-milllon to the table and that will allow us to do every community in the Northwest Territories, for example,” said Flaherty.

The plan is set to take five years to fully implement, although Flaherty said that timeline is dependent on the company’s earnings.

“Our revenues have slowed a little more than we thought they might because of what’s happening in the North,” he said. “We’re not saying we wouldn’t do the $233-million, but it might be over a longer period of time.”

The plan is now before the regulator, which will give the public and NorthwesTel’s competitors a chance to comment on it.

“We’re excited about the opportunity and really think that this is going to make a difference for northerners,” said Flaherty.

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