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Northwestel launches charm offensive as rivals emerge


Northwestel, long the dominant internet provider in northern Canada, is seeking to position itself as the local option as satellite alternatives like Starlink arrive.

For decades, and despite the presence of some smaller-scale rivals, most northerners have bought internet access from Northwestel at prices significantly higher than those in the south.

Northwestel says its prices reflect the cost of maintaining infrastructure over vast distances in the North, such as the fragile fibre-optic cable that provides most internet access in Yellowknife.

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While Starlink must foot the bill of moving an extensive satellite network into the sky, the same costs of maintaining ground-based equipment, fleets and technicians don’t apply – and Starlink has no local presence.

Northwestel’s latest advertising campaign seeks to exploit that fact, billing the company throughout the holiday season as “rugged like the North” and “backed by people who care.”

It’s a departure for a company that hasn’t previously faced a competitor of this scale – and Starlink isn’t the only low-Earth orbit satellite operator on the horizon – from which to differentiate itself.

Andrew Anderson, a spokesperson for Northwestel, sought by phone last month to emphasize improvements made by the company since a federal decision to mandate download speeds of at least 50 Mb per second across Canada, backed by tens of millions of dollars in funding to make the necessary upgrades.

“In a relatively short period of time, the overall internet experience in the NWT and Yukon has seen some pretty significant improvements,” Anderson said.

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“Our goal is to celebrate those improvements with the communities and to share with our customers the value of their internet service, which, for many of them, is really a new internet service.”

By the end of a three-year project due to conclude in 2023, Anderson said, “the NWT and Yukon will be among the most connected jurisdictions in Canada.”

For its holiday marketing campaign, Northwestel focused on what Anderson called “interactions between real-life technicians and customers in the North,” a decision that might be interpreted as underlining Northwestel’s physical presence compared to the remote nature of newer rivals. Shoots for the campaign took place in Inuvik, Dawson City and Tuktoyaktuk, among other locations.

An example of Northwestel’s recent advertising.

Asked repeatedly to comment on the threat Starlink poses to Northwestel, Anderson did not directly answer or mention Starlink by name.

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“We’re the fastest home internet in the North. We bring reliable, fibre-powered connections right to the home. We provide customers with a variety of services to choose from,” Anderson instead responded.

“All of these services are backed by people in the North who care. We think we bring really good value to the customers that we serve.”

Starlink, which began rolling out to customers in the North late last year, is operated by SpaceX, founded in 2002 by Elon Musk.

Requests to SpaceX for comment went unanswered.

Starlink’s published packages offer unlimited data with download speeds of 20 to 100 Mb per second for $140 per month plus tax, plus a one-off upfront payment of just under $800 to secure the hardware needed, which the customer must install. Of the unlimited data, one terabyte is considered “priority access” data – meaning it will be “given network priority over all other data on the Starlink network,” according to Starlink – and anything above that is considered basic access, meaning that “at times of network congestion, users with basic access may experience slower speeds and reduced performance compared to priority access.”

Northwestel’s published packages for Yellowknife – to which some smaller communities’ prices are pegged – offer download speeds of 70-100 Mb per second and unlimited data for $150 per month plus tax. Faster download speeds can be purchased for more money, up to 500 Mb per second for $240 per month plus tax. For a technician to install the service, just over $150 is charged. In Yellowknife and Whitehorse, you can opt to install the system yourself in some circumstances, but that choice also comes with a charge of just over $70.

How Northwestel will handle low-Earth orbit satellites in the longer term remains unclear.

The company has signed agreements with both OneWeb and Telesat to access satellite networks being developed by those firms. Anderson said Northwestel was “obviously pretty excited about harnessing a new technology” but rejected the notion that the North might ultimately be best served purely via satellite.

“We’re confident that fibre technology will beat any other technology,” he said.

Even so, older generations of satellites have long played a role in providing internet to communities too far from the existing fibre network.

In the fall of 2022, one such satellite’s imminent failure was a cause for concern in eight NWT communities reliant on the Anik F2 satellite for service.

Anik F2 is running out of fuel three years earlier than planned, its operator said in August, after a thruster malfunction for the past year forced the satellite to use a fuel-hungry workaround.

Anderson said last month that Northwestel has reached a solution that will use OneWeb low-Earth orbit satellites “to ensure we continue to be able to serve [affected communities] well with the most modern available technology.”