Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Around the Arctic February 07, 2014 - 2:48 pm

Canada’s telecoms watchdog kicks off satellite inquiry

CRTC: Getting handle on satellite costs essential for better service in remote communities

NUNATSIAQ NEWS
Telesat satellite dishes in Iqaluit. Telesat is the dominant satellite provider in northern Canada. (FILE PHOTO)
Telesat satellite dishes in Iqaluit. Telesat is the dominant satellite provider in northern Canada. (FILE PHOTO)

As promised this past December, Canada’s telecommunications watchdog, the CRTC, has launched an inquiry into satellite telecommunications in northern and remote communities.

To that end, on Feb. 6 they named Candice Molnar, a CRTC commissioner, to do the inquiry. She’s expected to complete her work by October 2014.

The CRTC announced the inquiry this past Dec. 18, within a big decision on Northwestel’s recent $233 million modernization proposal.

“The CRTC believes that modern telecommunications services are essential tools that Canadians in the North and remote areas need for economic development and to meet the growing demand for digital services such as health care, education and government services,” the regulator said in a news release.

In the lead-up to last December’s decision, the CRTC discovered it doesn’t have enough current information about satellite costs to make informed rulings about Northwestel’s operations within the satellite-dependent parts of the company’s serving area.

And they did find “a growing digital divide” between satellite-dependent communities and those that are connected via fibre-optic lines or microwave hops.

“Those communities that receive their internet services over terrestrial facilities, such as fibre and microwave, receive much faster and more reliable services than those that are served by satellite technology. Without action, this digital gap will not be closed, and may in fact worsen,” Jean-Pierre Blais, chair of the CRTC, said Dec. 18.

The inquiry will look at the quality and cost of satellite services in remote regions.

That would likely include all of Nunavut and Nunavik, as well as parts of Labrador and the northern regions of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.

The dominant satellite carrier in Nunavut is Telesat, a former Crown corporation that was privatized years ago.

A U.S. company called Loral owns about 64 per cent of Telesat and the Public Sector Pension Plan Investment Board owns the rest.

Telesat enjoys a near monopoly, supplying connections to telephone companies like Northwestel, TV providers like Shaw Communications and Bell Satellite TV, as well as broadcasters like CBC and APTN, and cell phone operators like Bell Mobility.

One exception is upstart cellular provider Ice Wireless, which uses another U.S. satellite firm, SES, to offer a 3G wireless service in Iqaluit and some other northern communities.

The CRTC said its inquiry will focus on:

• satellite operators that provide services to telecommunications firms;

• the rates that telecommunications firms pay for satellite services and how these rates are set;

• the limitations on satellite service quality that affect the quality of service offered by telecommunications firms;

• the amount of current and future satellite capacity available to telecommunications providers;

• potential changes in the way that satellite services are regulated.

The CRTC hasn’t looked at Telesat since 1999, when the agency decided “to forbear” from regulating the company, as long as Telesat’s prices remained under a certain ceiling.

But the CRTC did not surrender its power to regulate Telesat — this raises the possibility that, following the inquiry, the CRTC may step in and re-introduce such regulation.

“This inquiry will help us better understand the state of satellite services used to provide telecommunications services to certain communities and further help achieve an important goal: provide Canadians in remote regions with access to telecommunications services that are comparable to those available in the rest of the country,”  Blais said Feb. 6.

 

 

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