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SaskTel Raises Prices $5 a Month, But Announces New Fiber to the Home Service for Prince Albert

SaskTel is raising prices ... and broadband speeds. (Image: CBC)

SaskTel is raising prices … and broadband speeds. (Image: CBC)

Internet access on the prairie is getting more expensive as provincial-owned phone company SaskTel notifies its Saskatchewan customers it is raising certain DSL and fiber broadband prices by $5 a month — a 14% rate hike.

Effective Feb. 1, prices for High Speed Classic DSL and fiber service will rise to at least $39.95 a month. For DSL customers, that means nearly $40 a month for 1.5Mbps service.

SaskTel, a crown corporation, is telling customers it needs the money to upgrade its network and maintain customer support.

The phone company has a bold plan to replace copper wire infrastructure with fiber to the home service in each of Saskatchewan’s nine largest communities: Saskatoon, Regina, Moose Jaw, Weyburn, Estevan, Swift Current, Yorkton, North Battleford, and Prince Albert. The fiber network, dubbed infiNET, is already operational in parts of Moose Jaw and will be introduced in Prince Albert this spring.

SaskTel has a range of price points for its fiber network ranging from $39.95 a month for 2/1Mbps service to 260/30Mbps service for $139.95 a month.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/SaskTel -- Building the future with infiNET 5-30-13.mp4

Sasktel’s $800 million fiber to the home project is Canada’s most ambitious, because it will blanker urban, suburban, and near-rural customers. This video explores innovations Sasktel is finding to deal with Saskatchewan’s harsh climate, including fiber cables that stay flexible at -40 degrees and directional boring to quickly and inexpensively install underground fiber to homes. (3:28)

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Want Better Canadian Broadband? Move West

If you want better Canadian broadband with fewer tricks and traps and live in Ontario or Quebec: put the house up for sale, pack up your things, and head west.

Canada’s heavily metered and capped broadband is ubiquitous in the country’s two most-populated provinces where a convenient duopoly of Bell and Rogers in Ontario and Bell and Videotron in Quebec control the vast majority of the broadband market.  But cross west into Saskatchewan and things start to look a lot better.

Canadians telecommunications consultancy The Seaboard Group praised SaskTel, the provincial phone company, for refusing to slap usage caps on its customers.  SaskTel does not deliver the cheapest Internet access by any means, but the company is investing heavily in fiber optic upgrades to turn the page on aging copper wire infrastructure.  Stringing fiber through Regina, Saskatoon and beyond may seem counterintuitive to other providers.  Saskatchewan, one of Canada’s “prairie provinces,” is hardly packed with people.  With more than 20 million Canadians living in Ontario and Quebec, Saskatchewan gives its 1 million residents a lot of open space.  Sparser populations usually translate into higher costs per customer for upgrades, but SaskTel persists.

SaskTel has historically relied on traditional DSL and has competition in larger communities from Shaw Cable, western Canada’s largest cable operator.  Although SaskTel’s DSL delivers lower speeds than Shaw can provide, it does so with no usage limits.

Shaw’s decision to provide considerably more generous usage allowances has kept the pressure on SaskTel to upgrade its infrastructure to compete.

SaskTel CEO Ron Styles told the Leader-Post its fiber optic network will give cable a run for its money, and until then, it is satisfied undercutting cable pricing for broadband, delivering a far better experience than either Rogers or Bell provides eastern Canadians, Styles says.

Seaboard president Iain Grant found that what customers are willing to pay for service can also influence what prices providers charge.

“The price is more based on what you’re prepared to pay,” Grant said.

People in western Canada evidently are not willing to hand over as much money as their friends in Ontario and Quebec.

West of Saskatchewan lies Alberta and British Columbia — Telus territory.  Telus is western Canada’s largest phone company and also principally competes with Shaw Cable.

Shaw has forced Telus to back down on fueling enhanced revenue with usage caps of its own, and has been aggressively upgrading its network with additional fiber optics and DOCSIS 3 technology, forcing Telus to embark on its own upgrade effort.

Macleans reports western Canada’s more-competitive broadband market has been good for consumers, but has also exposed a difference in priorities for providers.

With Shaw breathing down its neck, Telus has committed to a $3 billion fiber optic network expansion in B.C., improved wireless coverage, and more IPTV service.  Macleans notes Telus is the only major telecom or cable company in Canada that hasn’t purchased a television asset, focusing instead on its core businesses of connecting customers.

In eastern Canada, Bell faces Rogers and Videotron.  Critics contend Bell sees no imminent threats there, and the phone giant is spending its money elsewhere, announcing a $3.4 billion acquisition of Astral Media — an entertainment company owning 24 specialty cable channels and pay-TV networks, including the Movie Network and HBO Canada.

Bell’s latest “investment” follows its 2010 $1.3 billion buyout of CTV and last year’s $1.32 billion co-purchase of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (the other buyer was their ‘arch-competitor’ Rogers Communications).

While Telus spends money on upgrading its broadband and video services to customers, Bell is positioning itself to control 34% of Canada’s TV universe.  Bell is also the same company that advocated slapping nationwide usage-based pricing on Canadian broadband consumers to pay for the “network upgrades” it contends were needed to handle increasing demand.

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Canadians Trash Their Cell Phone Options: Bad Service, Worse Value; Koodo Rates Highest

Canadians overwhelmingly rate their mobile phone providers poor for value, telling Consumer Reports they are paying too much and getting far too little coverage and service in return.

The 2011 Consumer Reports Wireless Survey (subscription required) shows Canada’s largest cell companies are generally awful in the estimation of 15,000 Canadians polled for the survey.  At the very bottom of the barrel are mega-carriers Bell Mobility and Rogers, both rated lousy for service and customer support.

“You can always do better than Rogers and Bell, no matter what other carrier you can think of,” says Thierry Duluis, a Stop the Cap! reader in Quebec. “Biggest does not mean best.”

Consumer Reports agrees.  It top-rated Koodo, a no-contract carrier owned and operated by western Canada’s phone company Telus.  Koodo is a relatively new player, only launching service in 2008, but has since built a reputation for lower prices and reasonably good service to the majority of populated regions across Canada.  But Koodo’s data plans can be expensive and confusing.  A $5 data starter plan delivers 25MB of data, and automatically increments: 26MB-100MB = $10, 101MB-300MB = $15, 301MB-1GB = $20, 1.01GB–3GB = $30, + 2¢/MB above 3GB.  A alternative plan with a 2GB data allowance runs $25 a month with a 2¢/MB overlimit fee.

Consumer Reports

Ironically, several wireless brands owned by large Canadian phone and cable companies scored higher than their respective owners.  Koodo scored higher than Telus Mobility.  So did Fido, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Rogers.

Regional SaskTel, which operates in Saskatchewan, received an admirable rating from the consumer magazine, primarily because of its slightly better customer service.  But no carrier, prepaid or postpaid, did extremely well across all categories.  Canadians are frustrated by cell phone prices that are often higher than what their American neighbors pay, and are often accompanied with stingy usage allowances.

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Canada’s Fiber Future: A Pipe Dream for Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, and B.C.

Fiber optic cable spool

For the most populated provinces in Canada, questions about when fiber-to-the-home service will become a reality are easy to answer:  Never, indefinitely.

Some of Canada’s largest telecommunications providers have their minds made up — fiber isn’t for consumers, it’s for their backbone and business networks.  For citizens of Toronto, Calgary, Montreal, and Vancouver coping with bandwidth shortages, providers have a much better answer: pay more, use less Internet.

Fiber broadband projects in Canada are hard to find, because providers refuse to invest in broadband upgrades to deliver the kinds of speeds and capacity Canadians increasingly demand.  Instead, companies like Bell, Shaw, and Rogers continue to hand out pithy upload speeds, throttled downloads, and often stingy usage caps.  Much of the country still relies on basic DSL service from Bell or Telus, and the most-promoted broadband expansion project in the country — Bell’s Fibe, is phoney baloney because it relies on existing copper telephone wires to deliver the last mile of service to customers.

Much like in the United States, the move to replace outdated copper phone lines and coaxial cable in favor of near-limitless capacity fiber remains stalled in most areas.  The reasons are simple: lack of competition to drive providers to invest in upgrades and the unwillingness to spend $1000 per home to install fiber when a 100GB usage cap and slower speeds will suffice.

The Toronto Globe & Mail reports that while 30-50 percent of homes in South Korea and Japan have fiber broadband, only 18 percent of Americans and less than 2 percent of Canadians have access to the networks that routinely deliver 100Mbps affordable broadband without rationed broadband usage plans.

In fact, the biggest fiber projects underway in Canada are being built in unexpected places that run contrary to the conventional wisdom that suggest fiber installs only make sense in large, population-dense, urban areas.

Manitoba’s MTS plans to spend $125-million over the next five years to launch its fiber to the home service, FiON.  By the end of 2015, MTS expects to deploy fiber to about 120,000 homes in close to 20 Manitoba communities.  In Saskatchewan, SaskTel is investing $199 million in its network in 2011 and approximately $670 million in a seven-year Next Generation Broadband Access Program (2011 – 2017). This program will deploy Fiber to the Premises (FTTP) and upgrade the broadband network in the nine largest urban centers in the province – Saskatoon, Regina, Moose Jaw, Weyburn, Estevan, Swift Current, Yorkton, North Battleford and Prince Albert.

“Saskatchewan continues to be a growing and dynamic place,” Minister responsible for SaskTel Bill Boyd said. “The deployment of FTTP will create the bandwidth capacity to allow SaskTel to deploy exciting new next generation technologies to better serve the people of Saskatchewan.”

But the largest fiber project of all will serve the unlikely provinces of Atlantic Canada, among the most economically challenged in the country.  Bell Aliant is targeting its FibreOP fiber to the home network to over 600,000 homes by the end of next year.  On that network, Bell Aliant plans to sell speeds up to 170/30Mbps to start.

In comparison, residents in larger provinces are making due with 3-10Mbps DSL service from Bell or Telus, or expensive usage-limited, speed-throttled cable broadband service from companies like Rogers, Shaw, and Videotron.

Bell Canada is trying to convince its customers it has the fiber optic network they want.  Its Fibe Internet service sure sounds like fiber, but the product fails truth-in-advertising because it isn’t an all-fiber-network at all. It’s similar to AT&T’s U-verse — relying on fiber to the neighborhood, using existing copper phone wires to finish the job.  Technically, that isn’t much different from today’s cable systems, which also use fiber to reach into individual neighborhoods.  Traditional coaxial cable handles the signal for the rest of the journey into subscriber homes.

A half-fiber network can do better than none at all.  In Ontario, Bell sells Fibe Internet packages at speeds up to 25Mbps, but even those speeds cannot compare to what true fiber networks can deliver.

Globe & Mail readers seemed to understand today’s broadband realities in the barely competitive broadband market. One reader’s take:

“The problem in Canada (and elsewhere) preventing wide scale deployment of FTTH isn’t the technology, nor the cost. It’s a lack of political vision and will, coupled with incumbent service providers doing whatever they can to hold on to a dysfunctional model that serves their interests at the expense of consumers.”

Another:

“The problem with incumbents is they only think in 2-3 year terms. If they can’t make their money back in that period of time, they’re not interested. Thinking 20, heck even 10 years ahead is not in their vocabulary.”

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