Atria Networks gets deeper into wireless

Ontario fibre provider Atria Networks has again expanded its network by buying infrastructure from a municipal utility, a deal that also pulls it more into being a wireless provider.

The latest move was to pick up Halton Hills Fibre Optics Inc. (HHFO). from the community energy division of the town of Halton Hills, a municipality of about 56,000 people west of Toronto between Brampton and Guelph. “It’s a continuation of our core strategy to acquire utility telecom arms when they become available,” said Michael Stephens, Atria’s vice-president of marketing and product development.

“It also helps us close a significant gap in our coverage map, especially between York Region [north of Toronto] and Kitchener-Waterloo [west of Guelph].”

Atria didn’t give details of the deal. However, last month town council agreed to sell the fibre division for $4.75 million.

HHFO provides broadband Interent and LAN services to organizations, off-site storage and application hosting services.

The addition is modest, adding only 400 broadband customers to Atria’s list and slightly extending its existing 4,500 km. of fibre. However, the deal also includes Hummingbird Wireless, which provider wireless Internet service to the area. These would be Atria’s first residential subscribers, although the company does provide pay-as-you-go Wi-Fi service in Waterloo and Ottawa, as well as free Wi-Fi to the public libraries in all the communities it serves in southern and central Ontario. It also is the engine behind the city of Hamilton’s free Wi-Fi service. On the one hand, residential services clash with Atria’s strategy of serving the business and public sectors. On the other hand, Stephens noted, Hummingbird comes with antennas that Atria could take advantage of to offer wireless services to its main audience.

Atria has promised not to abandon these customers but to “the same or better standard of service” they received from HHFO. Hummingbird uses Vecima Networks’ 900Mhz WaveRider base stations and antennas. Atria is in the middle of upgrading its Wi-Fi service to boost its use.

Changing include more billing choices, enhanced trouble-shooting and automatic connectivity. It would also like to strike a deal with one or more wireless roaming providers to give subscribers the ability to use their Wi-Fi-equipped laptops in a larger number of cities. However, Stephens emphasized that the company’s core will continue to be serving organizations.

Halton Hills decided to sell the fibre optics division after realizing that if energy division wanted to stay in the telecom business it would have to spend a lot on the network. It was felt it would be better for the energy division to concentrate on providing electricity to the area.

Among the benefits HHFO customers will receive from the deal is connectivity to Atria’s network in the surrounding regions, the company said.

Atria is owned by Birch Hill Equity Partners, a private investment group.

In a recent video interview, Atria president and CEO Steven McCartney said the company is still concentrating on Ontario, where it began seven years ago. “The goal is to have a contiguous network that we can service the province Ontario with. IT’s the largest market in Canada. We do have some assets on the other side of the [Rideau] river in Ottawa, and that’s largely because we service the public sector on both sides. In terms of plans to leave the province, there are none at this time. There’s certainly lots of growth left for us here.

[EDITOR’S NOTE – Shortly after this article was posted on the Web, Atria chairman Michael Salamon, who is also a partner at owner Birch Hill Equity Partners, announced McCartney will be leaving Atria at the end of June. The new CEO will be John Piercy, who had been president of Hamilton’s Mountain Cable, while the new president will be Ian Collins of Cogeco Data Services.]

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