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A Gift for Canada’s North

A decision by the CRTC to put the region's sole service provider on notice will likely mean an end to monopolistic ways.


January 1, 2012  


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Here in the Canada that is South of 60, we take many things for granted that are simply not available in Canada’s North. I could list many examples, but they can often be collected under the umbrella term, “choice.”

Since 1997, residents and enterprises in most of Canada have been able to choose which company provides their local phone service. That is the year in which competition was introduced to the so-called “local loop”. To put that in perspective, 1997 was the year Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister in the U.K. — the year that Diana, Princess of Wales, died following a car crash in Paris — the year a single mother on social assistance published her first book… Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Quite a long time ago, now, it seems.

Yet, the freedom to choose who delivers dial tone to our homes — a choice most of us have had for well over a decade now — was simply not available throughout much of the North. That is because Northwestel enjoyed a monopoly over that business. Others wanted to compete, to offer the benefits of competition to Canadian homes and businesses, but were legally forbidden from doing so. The result was inferior service and higher prices.

It is always easiest to maintain the status quo, but there is no denying that competition was the right thing for all Canadians. It is gratifying to see that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission decided in mid-December to give northern residents an early Christmas present, with the announcement that the last monopoly telecom service in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut would be opened to facilities-based competition as of May 1, 2012.

In the CRTC’s Dec. 14 news release announcing this historic moment, vice-chair Leonard Katz noted this change — spelled out in Telecom Regulatory Policy CRTC 2011-771 — will bring choice and innovative options to the North.

The decision also signaled what may be a shift in the commission’s dealings with service providers. As part of the proceeding that led to this decision. Northwestel asked for a $2 per line increase to monthly rates for residential and business local telephone service customers. This was not only denied, but greeted with a slap from the regulator. The news release puts it best, and I quote from it here:

“We are disappointed that Northwestel, which has until now been the sole provider of local telephone service in the North, has not made a greater effort to improve its services,” Katz said. “Many communities have been plagued by service outages and certain features are not widely available to customers. Northern residents deserve to have access to reliable and high-quality services comparable to those offered in the rest of the country.”

The CRTC has given the telco six months to present a plan to modernize its network.

The Commission intends to use this plan to monitor NWTel’s infrastructure and services over the next two years. As a parting shot, the CRTC has warned it will keep a close eye on the rollout of local competition in the North.

The CRTC has its critics. I have been one of those, on various occasions. And it has had its share of battles with the Minister of Industry — an example of which was whether Globalive, with its complicated ownership structure, would be allowed to operate its Wind Mobile service in Canada after winning spectrum at auction in 2008.

But when the Commission works — when it steps up to the plate and makes a decision against the status quo but very much in favour of Canadians — it does a brilliant job and deserves heaps of praise. Well done!

Canada’s North remains our country’s greatest frontier. Huge investments have been and are being made in the North — from healthcare and security, to economic development.

All of these investments will benefit from the CRTC’s decision to enable companies and individuals to choose their local service provider. The competition that results will encourage the deployment of robust networks and the creation of innovative services, even as it helps to ensure end-users are offered these services at a fair price. CNS

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry sector.

He can be reached (on his mobile) at 416-878-7730 or

at trevor@wordstm.com..