SaskTel expands high-speed to more rural areas

Before the end of 2001, SaskTel will extend high-speed Internet access in the province that’s easy to draw but hard to spell to 27 more communities – from La Ronge, Sask. in the remote north, to Oxbow and Maple Creek along the U.S. border.

With 100,000 Internet customers, one quarter of which have high-speed connections, Saskatchewanians have a long-standing and voracious appetite for cyberspace, said Tim Kydd, SaskTel’s media relations director for corporate affairs.

“We were actually the first (company) in Canada to make a commercial offering of DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) to residential and business customers – in Regina and Saskatoon back in 1996 – and since then we’ve been expanding it very aggressively. Whenever we make an announcement like this about (adding) 27 new communities we get calls from at least as many more that weren’t included but want to be,” Kydd said.

Once the current expansion to Assiniboia, Fort Qu’Appelle, Shaunavon and points beyond is completed, DSL loops will supply coverage to 61 per cent of Saskatchewan residents, an important step toward SaskTel’s goal of 95 per cent provincial coverage in the next three to five years, Kydd said.

With nearly one-third of its population living in towns of less than 1,000, SaskTel’s coverage is already impressive, according to Elroy Jopling, a principal analyst for public service worldwide with Gartner, Inc.

“You have to give credit to the Saskatchewan government [whose] CommunityNet initiative [recognized] that having high-speed is really a necessary requirement to be competitive in the world today, be it in farming or manufacturing. The other side is that SaskTel has always been quite innovative, and the easiest way to maintain your market is to keep on innovating before someone else does,” Jopling said.

Although SaskTel has fewer customers per kilometre than almost any area of Canada, and since DSL’s distance restriction of about four kilometres means installing many cabinets and switching centres, SaskTel is committed to offering high-speed at the price of $45 per month to both town and country subscribers, Kydd said.

“There are definitely more costs to [high-speed] than providing basic dial-up, but we don’t sell directly to the customer. We have a dealer channel around Saskatchewan where we allow businesses that are in the community already to sell [the service]. These dealers know their customers very well and often it’s cost-effective for them since SaskTel takes care of the branding, the packaging and ensuring the supply.

One of these dealers, Garry Nasby, owner of computer retailer and service provider CareTek in Melville, has had to hire a fifth employee to meet the demand for high speed since the community (population 3,000) was hooked up to SaskTel’s high-speed service last November.

“There were people bugging me for two years, wanting to know when we were going to get high-speed because Yorkton, which is about 30 minutes from here, had it for quite a while before us, and everyone knew people or businesses that had it,” Nasby said.

“High-speed is also very important for [CareTek], especially for the updates that we do all of the time in our service work, and also downloading software demos for our retail store. Some of those updates would take an hour to download with dial-up and this way it’s more like 10 minutes, plus we can have four or five machines running and still use our phone,” he said.

Nasby said that the 250-plus installations his firm has completed around Melville include most of the town’s businesses, medical offices, and several nursing homes. DSL’s more intense hardware requirements have also led to quite a few sales of new systems, or accessories like scanners and digital cameras, he added.