CRTC lays out plan for NorthwesTel to provide better telecom service in North

The CRTC wants better wireless and Internet service in Canada’s North and has laid out a plan for a Bell Canada subsidiary to get services in line with consumer expectations in the “second decade of the 21st century.”

NorthwesTel is expected to spend $233 million by 2017 to make improvements in services that consumers in southern Canada already have, CRTC Commissioner Jean-Pierre Blais said Wednesday.

“You get the impression that, in the North, we’re talking about things that we take for granted here and have for a number of years,” Blais said in an interview from Gatineau, Que.

“On top of that, it’s not just catching up to what we had 10 years ago. It’s about how do you get these communities up to par to what we expect in the second decade of the 21st century,” Blais said.

That will mean offering caller ID and call waiting as well as improved Internet service and faster wireless networks.

The CRTC said 70 communities now have access to call display, call answer and call waiting services and by 2017, all 96 communities will have these services provided by NorthwesTel.

By 2017, 83 of the 96 communities are expected to have access to a faster wireless network to allow use of data such as mobile apps.

“The North is a huge territory and the situation in the 96 communities is quite varied from one place to the next,” Blais said.

NorthwesTel said it’s pleased the CRTC is supporting its plan to upgrade its services. The subsidiary of Bell Canada (TSX:BCE) serves the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and northern parts of British Columbia and Alberta.

“However, it’s a complex decision and we’ll need some time to review it in detail before commenting further,” NorthwesTel said in a statement.

The CRTC’s NorthwesTel decision was released Wednesday shortly after the federal industry minister said the government will limit roaming charges that Canada’s big wireless carriers can levie on domestic rivals for use of their networks.

The federal regulator also said it has taken steps to help consumers in NorthwesTel’s territory, including a four-year price cap on services. And the CRTC has also directed NorthwesTel to offer landline, Internet and voice services separately, a move that may make it easier for new competitors to emerge.

Blais said the CRTC required NorthwesTel in 2011 to come up with a modernization plan because it felt the Bell subsidiary hadn’t been investing enough to make it a “modern, reliable affordable network.”

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission held hearings in the North earlier this year on the issue.

He said the CRTC has required some tweaking to the plan. For example, the CRTC will look at satellite services offered in Canada next year because NorthwesTel’s modernization plan didn’t address the needs of communities that rely on satellite-based Internet services due to their high cost.

The eastern Arctic, such as Nunavut, relies a great deal on satellite service for digital technology like the Internet while in the western Arctic there are land-based broadband networks for the service.

Telesat is among satellite providers that service the eastern Arctic, he said.

“There are other satellite providers that have less-than-perfect beams that hit the North.”

Telecom analyst Iain Grant said NorthwesTel’s plans to upgrade it services are long overdue. But he said by the time the CRTC looks into satellite services, there could be another solution.

A Canadian company called Arctic Fibre is working on a fibre optic route across the Canadian Arctic that will connect China to Europe, Grant said.

“And part of that is going to service much of Northern Canada with broadband fibre and give you Internet service in gigabytes across all sorts of obscure places in the North,” said Grant, managing director of the SeaBoard Group.

NorthwesTel isn’t without competition. Ice Wireless recently announced it will spend more than $12 million to upgrade its network in Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, replacing old technology that supported just talk-and-text service on cellphones with a faster, more advanced network to meet modern consumer demand.