Instead of offering high speed landline service to underserved Ontario and Quebec communities, the telco wants to extend its wireless network to them. That’s what the Inukshuk wireless effort was supposed to be about, says an industry analyst, who thinks Bell’s move means Inukshuk is dead

Bell switches to wireless for 102 underserved areas

Just over 100 communities in Ontario and Quebec have been waiting patiently for years to get broadband service from Bell over their phone lines. They may soon get an unexpected surprise: The ability instead to buy higher speed wireless service from the telco.

However, they may have to wait as long as four more years for it.

BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada and Bell Aliant divisions were planning to bring ADSL wireline broadband to communities as part of their obligation to bring high-speed services to underserved regions of their coverage area.

Instead, last month the phone companies asked the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for permission to extend their new HSPA+ cellular network to the towns, which would be paid for partly by a special fund set aside just over three years ago.

“The technology has evolved dramatically” since Bell first announced its plan to bring better service to small communities, explained Mirko Bibic, Bell’s senior vice-president for government and regulatory affairs.

Businesses and home users would be able to get wireless broadband either by plugging into computers a Bell USB Turbo Stick or a combination wireless router and Wi-Fi hotspot for multiple users dubbed the MiFi.

“We thought this would be a great bonus to these communities,” Bibic said. Not only would they get broadband wireless, they’d also get cellular voice service as well, he said. Both could be used anywhere in the country, as opposed to fixed DSL. Wireless would also give these communities access to the smartphone world, he added.

Bell’s application also comes four months after the Supreme Court of Canada approved the use of a controversial $652 million fund incumbent telcos had to create in 2006 after the CRTC found they had overbilled consumers. Rather than rebate the money, the telcos have to use the fund to subsidize extending broadband to hard to reach communities.

It isn’t clear how many communities are really in the slow lane. While Bell itself may not be able to offer ASDL service to them, local independent Internet service providers may be offerign service to many, and they may also have the option of broadband cable.

Take, for example, the central Ontario hamlet of Apsley. It’s on the Bell list of 102 communities to get upgraded broadband. However, on Friday staff member at a hardware store there said not only does the area already have cell coverage it has Internet service as well from Nexicom. The Millbrook, Ont. provider offers DSL, cable and wireless broadband service. According to Bell Mobility’s Web site, it already offers HSPA+ service to Apsley.
[A Bell spokesperson later explained that the new service would be expanded to an area within Apsley that it doesn’t currently serve.]

In it’s CRTC application, Bell says it will offer wireless broadband service offering up to 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) with a 2 Gigabyte usage for $31.95 a month for retail customers and $22 a month for wholesale customers. More details on the proposed fees and roll-out dates will come in a Feb. 26 filing to the commission.

However, telecommunications analyst Mark Goldberg cautions that HSPA’s reach and throughput for Internet use haven’t been proven. Wireless is a shared capacity technology, he pointed out, so the farther a user is away from a tower, the slower the download speed. Speed will also vary in direct relation to the number of subscribers online.

Based in Thornhill, Ont., Goldberg also has questions about how much Bell will take from the controversial $652 million deferral account. The communities already have access to voice service on their landlines, so the fund shouldn’t be used to subsidize the voice side of any new HSPA+ plus service, he said.

Montreal-based telecommunications analyst Iain Grant sees Bell’s move as marking the end of the so-called Inukshuk partnership between Bell and Rogers Communications to bring broadband wireless to underserved communities in all but two provinces.

Inukshuk uses a pre-standard version of WiMAX, a wide-area wireless technology. More than 125 formerly underserved communities are on the Inukshuk network.

Why would Bell choose to extend its HSPA+ network rather than use Inukshuk, Grant wondered. “Inukshuk was supposed to have wings, to grow to cover the country,” he said in an e-mail interview.  “Instead, it is stuck, with both of its owners focused on growing their ‘alternative to Inukshuk’ networks.

“Inukshuk RIP.  Not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Not so, said Bell’s Bibic. The 102 communities in the telco’s application were never on the Inukshuk list. Almost all would have received DSL service before (although some hard to reach pockets would have been supplied by Inukshuk.

Bell’s wireless plan has the advantage of cellular voice service, he added.

However, Bibic refused to discuss what’s in the future for Inukshuk.
A partial list of the communities Bell will bring wireless to include:

Ontario: Acton, Alisa Craig, Apsley, Armstrong, Bancroft, Barry’s Bay, Beachville,Bluewater Beach, Blyth, , Calabogie, Campbellville,Clinton, Cloud Bay, Cobden, Creemore,Dundalk, Eagle River, Echo Bay, Feversham, Flesherton, Fort Erie, Gilmour, Goderich, Gogama, Golden Lake, Kaministiquia, Lucan, Madoc, Magnetawan, Marathon, Markdale, Maynooth, Meaford,McKellar, Morson Northbrook, Otter Lake, Parry Sound, Pembroke, Petawawa, Pickle Lake, Plevna, Ridgeway, Sauble Beach, Sault. Ste. Marie Airport, Shebandowan, Sebright, South River, Stratton, Stevensville, Tamworth, Thornbury, Wawa, Wiarton, Vermilion Bay, Wabigoon.

In Quebec: Arundel, Ayer’s Cliff, Baie-St-Paul, Bishopton, Bury, Clermont, Compton, Cookshire, Dunham, East Broughton, Henryville, Herbertville-station, Huntingdon, Knowlton, L’Annonciation, Leeds, Mansonville, Ormstown, Riviere-Bleue, Rock Island, St-Honore, Stratford Centre, St-Sebastien, Sutton, Tring Jonction, Weedon.

 

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