Whitehorse council puts phone contract on hold

City council voted April 10 to further review a proposal to renew the current Northwestel contract for another three years at a cost of more than $186,000 per year.

Want to know which company will provide phone service to the City of Whitehorse? Please hold.

City council voted April 10 to further review a proposal to renew the current Northwestel contract for another three years at a cost of more than $186,000 per year.

Council first visited the issue under the belief that Northwestel was the only possible provider for phone service. That’s technically true under the city’s current traditional landline system. What is up for debate is whether the city should stay with that system or move to an internet-based voice over internet protocol (VoIP) system, which would open the phone service to other local competitors.

Martin Lehner of Whitehorse-based telecommunications provider Tangerine Technology told council it should switch to VoIP services, specifically one offered by Calgary-based Telin Systems. Tangerine Technology would have a “partnership” with Telin Systems, he said.

The current landlines, Lehner said, run off a system called centrex which basically “leases space from a large (central) system the phone company owns,” and represent an “older technology.” Lehner said this technology is becoming outdated.

VoIP would provide all the services the centrex system currently provides and could make long distance phone calls “a thing of the past,” he said.

He estimated the city could save as much as 30 per cent by using Telin VoIP system instead of Northwestel.

“VoIP is certainly growing and many people and businesses are switching over,” Lehner said.

Coun. Roslyn Woodcock said she was concerned about the long-term costs of switching to the internet-based system, including hardware and software upgrades and maintenance.

“The contract with Northwestel is not the only cost associated (with phone service),” she said.

Woodcock also had concerns surrounding what would happen in the event of an internet outage.

“One thing to remember is, that is there is a major outage … it can affect landlines as well,” Lehner said. He recommended that, if the city switched to VoIP, that they keep a few landlines around as “a redundant service.”

Lehner recommended the city hold off on signing a new three-year contract with Northwestel and sign a one-year contract instead. This would allow other service providers to submit ideas and give the city time to “figure out what it would need,” he said.

City staff said a three-year contract with Northwestel would cost $186,000 per year and a one-year deal would cost $275,000 per year. If council signed a one-year contract and then decided to renew with Northwestel the next year, it would cost the city nearly $100,000 more than signing the three year contract.

Rick Steele, TechYukon’s executive director, echoed Lehner’s recommendation.

“We concur with Tangerine Technology,” he said. “There is no anti-Northwestel sentiment behind this … but (if you keep the current plan) you may be buying into a technology which is obsolete.”

Both Northwestel and Tangerine Technology are members of TechYukon.

Steele did not advocate for a specific VoIP provider.

After listening to the delegates, council was divided on both the financial and practical merits of opting for VoIP services over traditional landlines.

“Our concern is the timing of the service,” said Mayor Dan Curtis. “ I think we recognize the need (to switch) and get there…. But our concern is implementation.”

Coun. Rob Fendrick, who attended the meeting via conference call, was in favour of the traditional services.

“(Phone service) is not just making calls to your bestie and setting up meetings,” said Fendrick. “There are a lot of complex things dealt with through phone lines.… VoIP is great technology for an office. But we don’t run an office. We run 12 different businesses and it’s highly technical.”

“What I have learned is that Northwestel is not the only option … and that centrex is obsolete,” said Coun. Betty Irwin.

Council sent the proposal back to administration, which will review issues such as cost and benefits, internet outage contingency plans and bandwidth usage before reporting back at a council meeting next month.

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