Economy

GNWT sets out its data and cell priorities, looks for backup


Extending cell service along NWT highways, avoiding internet outages, and giving competitors “fair and reasonable” access to Northwestel services are among priorities outlined in a territorial government document.

The GNWT is attempting to hire a consultant so it can play more of a role in regulatory proceedings and thereby help shape the kind of cell and data services northerners can access.

The territorial government already does routinely take part in proceedings overseen by telecoms regulator the CRTC, but says hiring a consultant may elevate the impact GNWT submissions have.

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In a request for proposals designed to find such a consultant, the NWT government outlines what it calls “key telecommunications issues” the territory is facing.

Among them are concerns any northerner could list, like trying to reduce the cost of internet and cell plans while improving broadband speeds and doing away with data caps.

But the document gives some insight into other priorities the GNWT hopes to pursue, if not the means by which the territory hopes to deliver progress.

For example, stated priorities in the document include “extending the provision of wireless services along NWT highways,” which could help revolutionize travel and highway safety for northerners if achieved.

At the moment, almost the entirety of the NWT’s highway network has no cell coverage. Many residents bring satellite devices (like Garmin’s InReach or Spot messenger systems) to ensure they can call for help in emergencies when – in more remote areas – the nearest community or even the nearest vehicle might be hours away.

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While the NWT introduced 9-1-1 service for the first time a year ago, the number remains useless in most highway emergencies as there’s no cell service to connect the call.

Writing to the territorial government as it planned 9-1-1’s rollout, the Hamlet of Tulita asked whether the GNWT would be lobbying Bell to install more cell towers along NWT highways. Bell, through subsidiary Northwestel, is the dominant provider of northern phone and internet serfvices.

MLAs subsequently passed a motion calling on the territorial government (then led by Bob McLeod) to “develop a strategic approach designed to secure support and funding to expand cellular coverage in the Northwest Territories.”

Little has happened since.

In June this year, Northwestel said it had “no active plan” to introduce cell service from Yellowknife to Behchokǫ̀, one of the most-travelled stretches of NWT highway and a stretch of road prone to accidents.

Northwestel scrutiny

Northwestel features prominently in the NWT’s document requesting CRTC consultancy proposals.

“Ensuring that competitors have access to Northwestel services and facilities on fair and reasonable terms” is a priority, the GNWT states.

The document adds the consultant eventually hired will be expected to “rigorously” monitor Northwestel’s investment in its network and services “to ensure they are continually modernized and keep pace with southern service provision.”

Northwestel is investing tens of millions of dollars in improving its infrastructure over the next three years with the aim of allowing unlimited internet across the territory. (A plan to roll out the first such plans in November has been delayed indefinitely. Northwestel blamed the CRTC.)

However, the company is also receiving federal cash – such as a $62-million CRTC grant this summer – to do that work.

Smaller rivals, often forced to use Northwestel’s infrastructure as alternatives rarely exist, say the company’s dominant position harms both smaller businesses and northern residents.

The consultant is instructed to “flag areas of concern if needed” regarding the quality of service Northwestel provides.

Role in redundancy

The individual or firm hired by the GNWT to act as its CRTC consultant will be expected to begin work in April 2021 on a one-year contract. No budget is given in the request for proposals.

“Expertise with broadband delivery in a remote environment” is a requirement, and the consultant will be expected to help the GNWT “deepen its understanding of the changing telecommunications landscape.”

One of the priorities the GNWT expects to advance is setting up some form of digital redundancy to cut down on the number of internet outages.

At the moment, Northwestel’s fibre line is the only one stretching from the south to Yellowknife, the territorial capital.

As a result, when that fibre line is vandalized – seemingly an increasingly frequent occurrence, with part of the line exposed above ground – the city can lose internet access for many hours at a time, damaging its economy and frustrating residents.

There are various plans afoot to provide a second line to Yellowknife that can act as a backup.

For example, Northwestel has floated a $25-million project to run a line under Great Slave Lake. KatloTech, a Yellowknife company, believes it can run a line from High Level, Alberta to the South Slave’s Kátł’odeeche First Nation and beyond.

If any such projects move closer to fruition, the consultant’s role will be to monitor all of the related CRTC filings and proceedings, then formulate a strategy and responses on the GNWT’s behalf.

The territory expects the consultant to be busy.

“Telecommunications will always be a challenge,” the document concludes.

“As a result, ongoing GNWT participation in the CRTC regulatory processes will be required for the foreseeable future.”

The closing date for proposals is December 4.

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