Northwestel explains what’s happening with unlimited data plans

Yellowknife's Northwestel building is pictured in July 2019
Yellowknife's Northwestel building is pictured in July 2019. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Northwestel says it hopes to begin offering unlimited data plans to northern residents, but is waiting on an application to telecoms regulator the CRTC for funding.

Earlier this month, Northwestel – the dominant internet provider in the North – permanently increased the amount of data on some business and residential internet plans.

However, some customers questioned what happened to the company’s stated aim of introducing unlimited data options.

Many customers had in effect been enjoying unlimited plans since March, when Northwestel began waiving overage fees in response to the Covid-19 pandemic as people began working or studying from home.



That overage waiver ended at the start of July.

Northwestel is the only Canadian telecoms provider whose packages must be vetted by the CRTC before being offered to customers, as a result of its market dominance.

The CRTC must inspect all changes to Northwestel’s plans, even when the company cuts prices or – as was the case in March – plans to waive fees.

Northwestel’s March application to the CRTC gave a glimpse of the company’s aim of providing unlimited plans to residential customers.



In that application, Northwestel said it would both temporarily waive overage fees and introduce unlimited plans by May 2020 – but only if the CRTC agreed to restore a subsidy to Northwestel worth millions of dollars, which was in the process of being phased out. (The subsidy was aimed at supporting the high cost of infrastructure for northern phone calls. The CRTC is setting up a new fund focusing on broadband access instead.)

The CRTC rejected that initial March request and told Northwestel to resubmit its application, focusing on pandemic relief measures without strings attached. Northwestel obliged, but the plan for unlimited data in May disappeared.

Low-Earth orbit satellites

Responding to Cabin Radio’s questions about the likelihood of unlimited plans being introduced, the company said it still hoped to roll out unlimited data in every Yukon, NWT, and Nunavut community.

The company said it had filed a separate application with the CRTC back in October 2019 for funding to provide those plans – and faster internet service – in remote communities, for the same price as it would charge in larger centres like Yellowknife.

“We’re hopeful to hear back and get approval from the CRTC,” Northwestel’s Andrew Anderson said this week.

Northwestel’s proposal includes plans to install fibre-to-the-home service in some communities, use Telesat’s low-Earth orbit satellites for others, and upgrade its hybrid fibre-coax broadband network in the remainder. 

If granted funding, Anderson said, Northwestel plans to deliver the improved service across the North over three years after receiving approval from the CRTC.

Through its Broadband Fund, the CRTC has said it will provide up to $750 million over five years to projects upgrading broadband internet in underserved areas of Canada.

The CRTC aims for all Canadians to have access to unlimited data and internet broadband speeds of at least 50 mbps for downloads and 10 mbps for uploads 

A representative from the CRTC said it plans to announce the first round of projects that have been granted funding in the coming months.