Regulator to hold public consultation on controversial plans by Bell division to modernize the old network that spans much of Canada’s north

CRTC to hold hearings on Northwestel

Service providers, businesses and residents in the far north are going to get another chance to vent their frustration against the country’s biggest phone company.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) said Thursday it will hold a public hearing next summer into the telecommunications services offered by Bell Canada’s Northwestel Inc. subsidiary.

The announcement comes exactly a year after the commission ended Northwestel’s monopoly on local phone service.
 
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It also comes after protests over Northwestel’s proposed $273 million modernization plan, which was tied to Bell’s planned billion dollar acquisition of Astral Media. The commission killed that deal.

For example, last July the SSI Group, which provides wireless broadband and satellite service to the north, issued a press release complaining Northwestel “threatened” that if the Bell-Astral deal sank it wouldn’t improve telecom service. SSI has its own network but also buys backbone connectivity from Northwestel. It is fighting with Northwestel now before the commission on certain tariff rates.

Northwestel’s initial proposed plan was a “blatant broadside attack on competition,” the SSI release also said.
 
Dean Proctor, chief development officer for SSI Group praised the CRTC’s move in an interview Thursday, saying its “something we’ve been waiting for for a while.”

In particular he’s pleased that the hearing won’t just focus on Northwestel but will broadly cover increasing telecom competition in the north including the cost of backbone transport.

“This is about how to properly address the communications needs of the north going forward and to make it a more hospitable place for telecom consumers.”

In a statement about the CRTC review Northwestelnsaid it is “proud of its long history of providing state-of-the-art communications across some of the most challenging terrain in the world.”

The statement also said the company will provide extensive information on its operations, including a revised modernization plan.

In announcing the review, CRCT chair Jean-Pierre Blais said that “Canadians expect to have a choice of high-quality telecommunications services, regardless of where they live.

“Last year, we expressed concern about the services available to northern Canadians and required Northwestel to develop a plan to modernize its aging network.” A public consultation followed by hearings next June in Inuvik and Whitehorse “will allow us to conduct a comprehensive review of Northwestel’s services and its planned improvements.”

Northwestel provides telecommunications services in the Yukon, the
Northwest Territories, Nunavut, northern British Columbia and northern
Alberta.

Under last year’s CRTC order, it must update its modernization plan by January 16, 2013.

The commission says it wants to hear from the public before the hearings on Northwestel’s modernization plan, regulations it should follow, whether changes need to be made in the existing subsidy regime to fund telecom services in the north and how competition should be implemented.
 
When Northwestel announced its $273 million modernization plan it included $40 million that Bell’s parent, BCE Inc., promised to spend on so-called public benefits it had to make for taking over competitor Astral.

The modernization spending, to be spread over five years, would ensure that residents of 96 communities would have access to the latest wireless devices on an upgraded 3G/4G network, the company said last July.

It also promised all communities would have access to Internet download speeds of at least 5 Mbps. That target was set by the CRTC last year. Finally, Northwestel also promised all communities will be able to buy enhanced calling features on local phone service. All this, it said, would come without increasing prices.
 
Since then Northwestel has issued a string of announcements, including new satellite-based broadband service in six Nunavut communities of download speeds of up to 2 Mbps; boosting download speeds to 5 Mbps in Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit; and boosting the CDMA wireless data speeds in four communities to EV-DO standards (about 3 Mbps. By comparison, LTE networks in urban Canada allow smart phone download speeds of up to 25 Mbps under ideal conditions).
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