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Economy

Northwestel proposes cheaper, faster internet for some people


Northwestel says it’s waiting for regulatory approval to knock $10 off the monthly cost of some residential internet packages and increase their download and upload speeds.

The company says its proposals “would see download and upload speed increases and rate decreases in every residential unlimited internet plan.”

For example, Northwestel said in a news release, “a residential internet customer on the fastest 250 Mbps unlimited internet plan sees their speeds automatically increase to 300 Mbps and their monthly rate reduced by $10 a month.”

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Businesses with unlimited data plans would also see speed increases under the proposals, but would not get the same price cut.

When, and if these changes happen depends on federal regulator the CRTC.

Northwestel must have changes to its plans approved by the CRTC because of the company’s dominant position in the North. The CRTC is studying the two proposals that would bring the price change and speed increase into effect.

That same dominant position is the source of opposition to Northwestel’s proposals behind the scenes.

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SSI Canada, a rival internet provider, is obliged to rely on Northwestel for much of its infrastructure. In many cases, Northwestel owns the only fibre lines and related technology that bring internet to northern communities. SSI must buy access to that infrastructure at a wholesale rate then find a way to make money.

SSI wants a range of changes to how that wholesale access works. Without those changes, the company says, letting Northwestel reduce rates for its customers is unfair.

“Although it is clear, as we have acknowledged on numerous occasions, that northern Canadians want and deserve access to the internet on rates, terms and conditions far more comparable to those available to Canadians elsewhere,” SSI writes, “entrenching Northwestel’s monopoly is a short-sighted and indeed regressive way to accomplish this goal.”

SSI also argues a broader CRTC review of Northwestel’s packages should conclude before any decisions on the latest proposals are made.

‘Just and reasonable’

Northwestel says SSI’s concerns about how wholesale access works can’t be tied to its request to drop prices and increase speeds, and should be a separate discussion. The company says it’s simply meeting customer demand for cheaper internet.

“We know northern customers want to see continuous improvements in the value of their internet service, and that’s why Northwestel has laid out its plans to improve speeds and lower rates on our most popular internet plans,” said Curtis Shaw, Northwestel’s president, in a statement.

But when Northwestel first filed its proposal to reduce the cost of unlimited plans earlier this year, Whitehorse resident Daniel Sokolov wrote to the CRTC: “If the new prices are just and reasonable now, they would have already been just and reasonable when ‘unlimited’ packages were introduced” less than half a year earlier.

Sokolov wants Northwestel to improve its cheaper plans. (The biggest benefits housed within Northwestel’s proposals would apply primarily to people buying its more expensive, unlimited internet plans.) He also wants the CRTC to ask Northwestel to increase the range of options available and provide the same kind of price cuts to businesses that are proposed for residents.

On that last point, he has the support of Yukon’s tourism industry association, which told the CRTC Northwestel has a “responsibility to the community, especially during such challenging times” to apply the same reductions to businesses.

Northwestel, in a response, said businesses should ask their territorial or federal governments for help.

Limits remain in some places

Northwestel’s proposals also include increased monthly data usage caps and speeds for some customers who don’t have unlimited plans. But there are caveats to that.

For example, “network limitations” mean customers in Fort Nelson, BC, can’t get download speeds above 125 Mbps, Northwestel told the CRTC this month. Existing packages will continue to be offered in the community.

In some northern communities served by microwave, not fibre, the maximum speed will remain 50 Mbps. Those are Aklavik, Délįne, Dettah, Fort McPherson, Tsiigehtchic, and Tuktoyaktuk in the NWT, alongside Faro and Ross River in the Yukon.

Northwestel says it will be upgrading connections to Dettah, Faro, and Ross River in 2023. As communities are connected to fibre, their speeds will increase.

“Northwestel has purposely sought similar pricing and download speeds in fibre and cable internet plans, so that northerners in the growing number of rural fibre communities see similar value and benefits as in major northern centres,” the company said of its proposals.

LEO? IDK

Lastly, Northwestel’s applications acknowledge that the imminent introduction of low-Earth orbit satellite technology is likely to completely upend how northerners get their internet – with consequences that aren’t easy to predict.

In supporting documents requested by the CRTC, Northwestel says its forecasts of future demand and revenue don’t yet take into account the prospect of competition from the likes of Starlink’s satellites, nor Northwestel’s own partnerships with companies like Telesat and OneWeb.

The impact and pricing of low-Earth orbit internet “at the present time is entirely uncertain,” Northwestel writes.

“LEO satellite technology is likely to fundamentally disrupt the very nature of the telecommunications industry in the North. The related impacts are likely to be very significant.”

Those impacts are expected to be felt in the next few years.

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