Grant said the decision appears to have been pushed by Northwestel’s recent request for more money from the government, an allowance to charge $2 more per line and an extension of its TC monopoly. “They’re talking about taking the money that we give them ... to take additional money to upgrade the capabilities of the old switches, which is something they ought to have been doing anyways,” he said. “Northwestel has been holding its nose and saying ‘this is so expensive, you don’t know how tough it is’...maybe it’s time to let someone else ease that burden from you.”
In fact, Grant said the aging infrastructure, composed of more than 20-year-old switches, is so far behind the current state in the rest of Canada it needs replacing, not upgrades. “The cost of offering IP-based services is actually very low. You don’t need a switch, you need a $2,000 PC,” he said.
One provider that could benefit from the ruling is Yellowknife-based SSi Micro, the largest ISP in the north. CEO Jeff Philipp said the decision means a lot to business. “With today’s decision, the CRTC has clearly ruled on the side of of choice and innovation,” he said. However, Dean Proctor, the company’s chief development officer, maintained that it’s not out of the woods yet. “The next key step will be a decision by the CRTC on our application concerning Northwestel’s discriminatory pricing for backbone services to the south.”
This has been one of the main points of contention over Northwestel’s handling of telecom infrastructure in the north. Grant said. Because Northwestel’s wholesale pricing is so far out of whack with the normal markup of goods and services for the rest of the Northwest Territories, it has prevented companies like SSi Micro from having a true chance at using its infrastructure. Fibre optic lines run north from Alberta but, not coincidentally, Northwestel currently is selling use of them. “The key thing is that Northwestel has been charging an enormous amount for wholesale,” he said. “(Now), competitors could band together and buy another pipe, in this case fiber, south from Alberta.”
Grant also pointed out that, while fibre costs are higher in the north, it’s a relatively known quantity now, and one that is not prohibitive.