After years of significant pressure from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Northwestel has finally announced a strategy to improve Internet and wireless services in Canada’s north.
The plan – formally submitted to the CRTC on Wednesday – calls for a five-year, $233 million investment in its telecommunications network to support core infrastructure and upgrade and expand new services. Existing wirelines will be upgraded, as will cable infrastructure to boost Internet speeds to nearly 60 communities. Another 67 communities will receive 3G wireless broadband, which Northwestel says will allow 99 per cent of northerners to access the latest smartphones, tablets and handsets.
An earlier proposal by Northwestel was tied to Bell Canada Enterprise’s proposed takeover of Astral Media Inc., a deal rejected by the CRTC. Northwestel was given until mid-January 2013 to resubmit.
“We have developed a modernization plan that delivers for our communities,” said Paul Flaherty, president and CEO at Northwestel. “In addition to supplying more northern communities with enhanced services, the plan puts in place measures to facilitate competition and builds on partnerships with other parties. The Northwestel plan outlines how we will bring next generation wireless and broadband services to the North and essentially reduce distances with technology. This plan puts northerners first and provides our customers with access to modern and innovative services.”
Enhanced calling features, such as call display, will be made available to 96 communities in the operating area. Eighty-four per cent of the population will be able to keep their phone numbers if they choose to switch to another service provider.
Though Flaherty said Northwestel is working to put customers first, the CRTC has been impatient when it comes to the company’s efforts. In December, the CRTC launched a public process to study the telecom services Northwestel offers to northern Canadians. It is the only telecom offering service in the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Nunavut, areas with a population of over 107,000.
“Last December, we issued a decision to address the communications challenges facing citizens, businesses and governments there,” said CRTC acting chairman Leonard Katz, in an address to the Canadian Telecom Summit in Toronto last June. “They deserve to have access to reliable services comparable to those that other Canadians take for granted. But they’ve had to put up with aging infrastructure and service outages, as well as the geographic and demographic challenges.”
Although Northwestel received $20 million a year for service improvements, the CRTC alleges it has dropped the ball when it comes to investing in its network. In 2011, the regulator opened the doors for telecom competition in the north, attracting interest from companies including SSI Micro and Iristel.
The need for faster Internet speeds and improved service has been well established, with the lack of infrastructure impacting basic services like education and health care. In an interview with the Globe and Mail published in December, Rich Thompson, CEO of Northern Vision Development LP, said more competition and stronger connections are needed.
“Northwestel has worked hard over the years to make sure that services are updated, but there’s no question that we struggle in the North,” Thompson was quoted as saying. “It is speed of Internet access and the cost of having quality Internet access for our guests. So, we struggle to get the right packages for our hotel from the telephone company that will allow our guests to experience the Internet the way they would expect to in any other hotel when they are travelling across Canada.”
More details about Northwestel’s latest plans are available on its website. The public can submit feedback to the CRTC.