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Big City Telecom Infrastructure is Often Ancient: Conduits 70+ Years Old, Wiring from 1960s-1980s

A panel electromechanical switch similar to those in use in New York until the 1970s.

A panel electromechanical switch similar to those in use in New York until the 1970s. They were installed in the 1920s.

As late as the 1970s, New York Telephone (today Verizon) was still maintaining electromechanical panel switches in its telephone exchanges that were developed in the middle of World War I and installed in Manhattan between 1922-1930. Reliance on infrastructure 40-50 years old is nothing new for telephone companies across North America. A Verizon technician in New York City is just as likely to descend into tunnels constructed well before they were born as is a Bell technician in Toronto.

Slightly marring last week’s ambitious announcement Bell (Canada) was going to commence an upgrade to fiber to the home service across the Greater Toronto Area came word from a frank Bell technician in attendance who predicted Bell’s plans were likely to run into problems as workers deal with aging copper infrastructure originally installed by their fathers and grandfathers decades earlier.

The technician said some of the underground conduits he was working in just weeks earlier in Toronto’s downtown core were “easily 60-70 years old” and the existing optical fiber cables running through some of them were installed in the mid-1980s.

At least that conduit contained fiber. In many other cities, copper infrastructure from the 1960s-1980s is still in service, performing unevenly in some cases and not much at all in others.

Earlier this year, several hundred Verizon customers were without telephone service for weeks because of water intrusion into copper telephone cables, possibly amplified by the corrosive road salt dumped on New York streets to combat a severe winter. Verizon’s copper was down and out while its fiber optic network was unaffected. On the west coast, AT&T deals with similar outages caused by flooding. If that doesn’t affect service, copper theft might.

munifiber

Fiber optic cable

Telephone companies fight to get their money’s worth from infrastructure, no matter how old it is. Western Electric first envisioned the panel switches used in New York City telephone exchanges until the end of the Carter Administration back in 1916. It was all a part of AT&T’s revolutionary plan to move to subscriber-dialed calls, ending an era of asking an operator to connect you to another customer.

AT&T engineer W.G. Blauvelt wrote the plan that moved New York to fully automatic dialing. By 1930, every telephone exchange in Manhattan was served by a panel switch that allowed customers to dial numbers by themselves. But Blauvelt could not have envisioned that equipment would still be in use fifty years later.

As demand for telephones grew, the phone company did not expand its network of panel switches, which were huge – occupying entire buildings – loud, and very costly to maintain. It did not replace them either. Instead, newer exchanges got the latest equipment, starting with more modern Crossbar #1 switches in 1938. In the 1950s, Crossbar #5 arrived and it became a hit worldwide. Crossbar #5 switches usually stood alone or worked alongside older switching equipment in fast growing exchanges. It occupied less space, worked well without obsessive maintenance, and was reliable.

It was not until the 1970s that the Bell System decided to completely scrap their electromechanical switches in favor of newer electronic technology. The advantages were obvious — the newer equipment occupied a fraction of the space and had considerably more capacity than older switches. That became critical in New York starting in the late 1960s when customer demand for additional phone lines exploded. New York Telephone simply could not keep up with and waiting lists often grew to weeks as technicians looked for spare capacity. The Bell System’s answer to this growth was a new generation of electronic switches.

The #1 ESS was an analog electronic switch first introduced in New Jersey in 1965. Although it worked fine in smaller and medium-sized communities, the switch’s software bugs were notorious when traffic on the exchange reached peak loads. It was clear to New York Telephone the #1 ESS was not ready for Manhattan until the bugs were squashed.

Bell companies, along with some independent phone companies that depended on the same equipment, moved cautiously to begin upgrades. It would take North American phone companies until August 2001 to retire what was reportedly the last electromechanical switch, serving the small community of Nantes, Quebec.

ATT-New-York-central-office-fire-300x349

A notorious 1975 fire destroyed a phone exchange serving lower Manhattan. That was one way to guarantee an upgrade from New York Telephone.

On rare occasions, phone companies didn’t have much of a choice. The most notorious example of this was the Feb. 27, 1975 fire in the telephone exchange located at 204 Second Avenue and East 13th Street in New York. The five alarm fire destroyed the switching equipment and knocked out telephone service for 173,000 customers before 700 firefighters from 72 fire units managed to put the fire out more than 16 hours later. That fire is still memorialized today by New York firefighters because it injured nearly 300 of them. But the fire’s legacy continued for decades as long-term health effects, including cancer, from the toxic smoke would haunt those who fought it.

The New York Telephone building still stands and today also houses a street level Verizon Wireless retail store.

New York Telephone engineers initially rescued a decommissioned #1 Crossbar switch waiting to be melted down for scrap. It came from the West 18th Street office and was cleaned and repaired and put into emergency service until a #1 ESS switch originally destined for another central office was diverted. This part of Manhattan got its upgrade earlier for all the wrong reasons.

Throughout the Bell System in the 1970s and 80s, older switches were gradually replaced in favor of all electronic switches, especially the #5 ESS, introduced in 1982 and still widely in service today, serving about 50% of all landlines in the United States. Canadian telephone companies often favored telephone switches manufactured by Northern Telecom (Nortel), based in Mississauga, Ontario. They generally worked equally well as the American counterpart and are also in service in parts of the United States.

The legacy of more than 100 years of telephone service has made running old and new technology side by side nothing unusual for telephone companies. It has worked for them before, as has their belief in incremental upgrades. So Bell’s announcement it would completely blanket Toronto with all-fiber service is a departure from standard practice.

For Bell in Toronto, the gigabit upgrade will begin by pushing fiber cables through existing conduits that are also home to copper and fiber wiring still in service. If a conduit is blocked or lacks enough room to get new fiber cables through, the Bell technician predicted delays. It is very likely that sometime after fiber service is up and running, copper wire decommissioning will begin in Toronto. Whether those cables remain dormant underground and on phone poles for cost reasons or torn out and sold for scrap will largely depend on scrap copper prices, Bell’s budget, and possible regulator intervention.

But Bell’s upgrade will clearly be as important, if not more so, than the retirement of mechanical phone switches a few decades earlier. For the same reasons — decreased maintenance costs, increased capacity, better reliability, and the possibility to market new services for revenue generation make fiber just as good of an investment for Bell as electronic switches were in the 1970s and 1980s.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ATT Reconnecting 170000 Phone Customers in NYC After a Major Fire 1975.mp4

AT&T produced this documentary in the mid-1970s about how New York Telephone recovered from a fire that destroyed a phone exchange in lower Manhattan and wiped out service for 173,000 customers in 1975. The phone company managed to get service restored after an unprecedented three weeks. It gives viewers a look at the enormous size of old electromechanical switching equipment and masses of phone wiring. (22:40) 

Gigabit Fever Hits Toronto: Bell Introducing Gigabit Fiber Internet Across Entire GTA

bellBell Canada will invest $1.14 billion to bring gigabit fiber to the home service to more than one million homes and apartments in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) over the next three years.

It will be the largest fiber build ever attempted in North America, and will serve every home and business in the GTA, beginning with 50,000 homes and businesses that will be upgraded to all-fiber service this summer.

“This is something that quite frankly none of us could have imagined just a few years ago,” Bell Canada president and CEO George Cope said at a press conference this morning. “This will be 20 times faster (than average Internet speeds) and it really is building for the consumer what large, large enterprise would have had just a few years ago for their corporations.”

gtaToronto will be the fastest broadband city in North, Central, and South America when Bell is finished laying 9,000 kilometers of fiber underground and on 80,000 Bell and Toronto Hydro utility poles. At least 27 Bell telephone exchanges will be fully upgraded to 100% fiber service, eliminating huge swaths of older copper wiring. At least 2,400 new jobs will be created, but Bell and Toronto city officials are convinced an all-fiber optic network will attract even more jobs and help broaden Toronto’s digital economy.

Bell’s project in Toronto will be vastly larger than AT&T U-verse with GigaPower, Comcast’s 2Gbps fiber service, and Google Fiber because:

  • It will actually exist, unlike fiber to the press release announcements of phantom fiber upgrades from Comcast and AT&T that serve only a miniscule number of customers;
  • Will not rely on “fiberhoods” and will deliver fiber service to every home and business and every neighborhood across the entire GTA.

No pricing has yet been announced but Bell promised it would be competitive with other gigabit broadband projects in North America. That likely means Toronto residents will pay between $70-100 a month for gigabit service. No details about usage caps or allowances were included in the announcement.

Bell is already upgrading some of its existing Fibe network in other cities to deliver gigabit speeds on a more limited basis in Atlantic Canada (Bell Aliant) and in select cities in Ontario and Quebec as part of a $20 billion network upgrade.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CP24 Bell Gigabit Announcement 6-25-15.flv

CP24 carried this morning’s press conference introducing Bell Gigabit Internet across Toronto. (19:51)

So Much for Competition: Rogers to Buy Independent Mobilicity to Use in Tax Savings Scheme

mobilicityMobilicity, a struggling independent wireless carrier serving some of Canada’s largest cities, will end its efforts to compete with larger wireless companies if a court approves its sale to Rogers Communications, Canada’s largest mobile operator.

Late this afternoon, sources told The Globe and Mail Mobilicity accepted an offer from Rogers in excess of $400 million to acquire the wireless company’s assets and transfer some of its wireless spectrum to Wind Mobile Corp., one of the last remaining Canadian independent carriers, to appease regulators, who could still block a deal with Rogers.

The federal government’s wireless telecom policy has stressed the importance of having at least four wireless providers competing in every region. Wind has managed to achieve that in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta, but lacks enough coverage elsewhere. Mobilicity landed itself in financial trouble soon after launch, finding the costs of network construction high for a company with below-expected customer numbers.

rogers logoMobilicity has been under creditor protection since September 2013 and has only managed to keep 157,000 active customers on its discount cellular network. Rogers is said to be interested in Mobilicity primarily as part of a tax write-off strategy. Mobilicity had non-capital loss carry forwards of $567-million by the end of 2013, which offers Rogers a reduction in its tax bill of about 25 to 30% of that amount.

Observers predict Mobilicity could continue for a time, if in name only, as part of Rogers’ larger portfolio of wireless brands. Rogers already controls two other Canadian wireless brands: Fido and Chatr.

As late as yesterday, Rogers and Telus were both fighting to acquire Mobilicity after it became clear there would be no “white knight” for Mobilicity that would satisfy competition regulators or creditors. Telus attempted an acquisition twice, only to be rebuffed by the Competition Bureau. A last-ditch effort by Wind Mobile to acquire its comparatively sized competitor was a flop with creditors who expected a higher bid.

Mobilicity’s network coverage was always one of its biggest challenges. The company only managed to offer direct coverage in parts of the Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa/Gatineau, Calgary, Edmonton, and Greater Vancouver. Mobilicity’s network also relied on very high frequencies that had a challenging time penetrating buildings, and its lack of network densification led to complaints about dropped calls and poor coverage overall.

The disposition of an earlier plan submitted by employees and Mobilicity’s founder to transform the company into an MVNO — providing independent wireless service using its acquirer’s network, isn’t known at press time.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN Clock ticking on Rogers and Telus to conclude Mobilicity takeover 6-22-15.flv

As late as yesterday, BNN was reporting Telus and Rogers were both competing to acquire Mobilicity. It appears Rogers has won. (2:23)

Canada’s Choice: Privatized MTS Enriches Itself, Publicly Owned SaskTel Enriches Customers

Truth or Consequences: Does privatizing a government-owned telephone company encourage innovation and efficiency or serve to enrich a handful of executives and shareholders at the cost of customer service? Two essentially equal telephone companies serving the Canadian prairie provinces offer some useful insights.

sasktelThe provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan are remarkably similar in their landscape and their sparse populations — 1.29 million in Manitoba and 1.13 million in Saskatchewan. Today, most are concentrated in or near a few large cities with many small agricultural towns scattered across great distances.

At the dawn of the 1900s, the “Sunny way” of Prime Minister Sir Henri Charles Wilfrid Laurier and his Liberal party was to push open the western frontiers and lay new railways across Canada. Part of the zeal for expansion came from a sense of growth and optimism, but there were also pervasive fears that without significant settlements in central Canada, the Americans could end up annexing huge swaths of empty Canadian agricultural lands for its own interests.

To prevent this and enhance its own national identity, Canada threw its doors open to immigration, especially to hard-working Americans from the midwest who were inundated with government-sponsored advertisements about a new life and opportunities that waited in the Canadian prairies.

The campaign worked. Between 1901 and 1906, the population of Saskatchewan surged from 91,279 to 257,763, 86.8% settled in rural farming areas. By 1911, the population almost doubled again to 492,432 with over 80% located away from the cities of Regina and Saskatoon. Next door in Manitoba, many new residents preferred areas south of Winnipeg, closer to the American border.

mtsServing this population boom depended heavily on Canadian railroads, which delivered settlers and laborers, medicine, farming equipment, and the latest news from Ottawa. The trains returned east with part of the harvest and various meats.

It was no surprise Canada’s telecommunications infrastructure (along with more than a few new towns) would grow up along its railway lines.

With Bell Canada preoccupied with its larger client base in Ontario and Quebec, both the governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan established provincial, publicly owned, phone companies to take control of their telecommunications future. In 1908, the Manitoba Telephone System (MTS) was born, made up mostly of former Bell customers. In 1909, SaskTel was established as a publicly owned operation as well, again comprising former Bell customers in the province. Both MTS and SaskTel quickly bought out all the remaining private telephone companies still operating in their midst.

The Winnipeg Free Press notes both MTS and SaskTel successfully served their respective customers for nearly 90 years. In 1997, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative premier Gary Filmon broke his pledge to keep hands off MTS and privatized the company, claiming it would be more innovative in private hands.

That move would not be repeated in Saskatchewan, where every political party in office usually treated SaskTel as sacrosanct to the province’s economic development. Even the conservative Saskatchewan Party, which held power in the province from 1982-1991, never got around to privatizing the phone company, and a pledge to privatize crown corporations in the near future was just one of several issues that led to the party’s downfall in the election of 1991.

w canadaFor the last 18 years, Canadians have been able to see which province made the wisest choice. The newspaper concluded after nearly two decades, there is strong evidence MTS’ main priorities are to satisfy shareholders and commercial business customers, while rewarding their executives with handsome pay packages.

“Meanwhile, SaskTel appears to focus on customer service and satisfaction, being a good employer and on providing returns to their public shareholder: the people of Saskatchewan,” the Winnipeg Free Press concluded.

Evidence of SaskTel’s service ethic could be found last week when SaskTel was acknowledged as western Canada’s most dependable wireless carrier, according to a new study by market researcher J.D. Power.

“SaskTel ranks highest in overall network quality and performs particularly well in call quality, messaging quality and data quality,” J.D. Power said in its report.

SaskTel has never been reserved about its own accomplishments, particularly its success delivering innovative new services to sparsely populated regions across Saskatchewan:

  • SaskTel was the first telecommunications company in Canada to complete its rural individual line service program, eliminating all party lines in 1990;
  • SaskTel was at the forefront of Internet provision as the first in Canada to remove the long distance charges on dial-up Internet and the first in North America to offer high-speed service on phone lines through DSL technology;
  • SaskTel was among the first commercial users of fiber-optics in the world, today offering customers competitive cable television, broadband, and phone service.
Filmon

Filmon

MTS has not turned out to be the innovator it was promised to be as a private company. While SaskTel was becoming a world leader in converged fiber optic networks, supplying voice, data and video across a strand of fiber, MTS was raising rates on landline customers.

Today, a basic landline in Saskatchewan costs around $8 a month — 27% less than the cheapest MTS home phone service. Everything at MTS usually costs more, which has turned out very well for shareholders and executives. While MTS earns roughly double the profit of SaskTel, almost all goes to major shareholders and top executives. SaskTel has returned $497 million over the last five years to the provincial government as well as customers through an annual dividend payment. Over in Manitoba, MTS has proved to be innovative in avoiding its tax bill — only paying corporate taxes once in 10 years — and that was just $1.2 million in 2010. Creative accounting at MTS has allowed the profitable company to pay “a big fat zero in federal and provincial corporate income taxes,” according to the newspaper, and MTS does not expect to owe a penny in income taxes until 2020 at the earliest.

So where do MTS profits go? Last year, MTS former CEO Pierre Blouin received $7.8 million in compensation, well above his five-year average of $4.8 million. Blouin’s salary was more than 10 times higher than what SaskTel’s CEO receives annually.

The newspaper adds MTS directors are paid more than 10 times what SaskTel’s directors are paid. But even more disturbing, the man who made the Money Party possible for MTS — former premier Gary Filmon — had a cozy, well-compensated home waiting for him on the MTS board after he lost his re-election bid. He has used his time at MTS to feather his own nest with more than $1.4 million in director fees and compensation over 10 years, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of shares.

“None of this is meant to suggest SaskTel is an ideal company, but it appears abundantly clear this publicly owned and operated company provides better service at lower costs to its customers than the privatized MTS, and it also provides much larger benefits to the people of the province from its profits,” writes economist Toby Sanger. “Despite all this, the Saskatchewan government may be laying the groundwork for privatization of SaskTel. If this is what we can expect from the privatizations of other public utilities — higher fees for the public, lower-quality service, much higher compensation for CEOs and executives, higher corporate profits but much lower returns for the provinces — we can see why Bay Street [Canada’s Wall Street] is so excited about the privatization of Hydro One — and why the people of Ontario should be very worried.”

CBS Introducing a Showtime Broadband-Only Streaming Video Subscription Service

showtimeFollowing the footsteps of HBO Now, CBS Corporation is preparing to offer a broadband-only streaming video version of Showtime.

Variety reports a formal announcement is due this week for the service and just like HBO Now, it will initially launch as an Apple TV exclusive, with other platforms added later.

No information about the depth of the online Showtime on-demand catalog is available yet, but the pricing for the service is: $10.99 a month. It will launch July 12. HBO Now costs $15 a month.

CBS has gotten experience in the streaming video market with its $6/mo CBS All Access service, which offers on-demand viewing of decades of CBS programming and all episodes of current CBS series. In markets where CBS owns its local affiliate, live streaming is also available.

Showtime will also be expanding into Canada for the first time in January, to be made available on Bell Media platforms including Fibe TV and its direct to home satellite service.

This article updated to reflect pricing and launch date of the service.

Canada Prepares to Say Goodbye to the 3-Year Cellphone Contract; June 3rd is the Deadline

Signing a three year contract usually meant a cheaper device.

Signing a three year contract usually meant a cheaper device.

Canadians still stuck on an old three-year wireless contract may be able to leave their current carrier penalty-free as soon as June 3rd as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) deadline on lengthy wireless contracts takes full effect this Sunday.

In June 2013, the CRTC banned three-year cell phone contracts in its wireless code to give customers a chance to switch providers more often without an expensive early termination fee to deter them. The commission set a two-year transition period which will end June 3.

But it turns out wireless carriers have not made the process of leaving penalty-free easy and the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS) expects the ombuds office will be forced to intervene on behalf of consumers. Some providers have applied creative interpretations of the wireless code the industry earlier sued to block on the grounds it created retroactive interference with contractual rights. The Federal Court of Appeal dismissed the wireless industry’s lawsuit last week. The CCTS is notifying providers what it expects from them.

There are two primary groups of customers affected by the June 3rd deadline:

  • Those who signed a three-year contract before June 3, 2013:

These customers will see their three-year contracts cut to two years, and all will expire June 3. They can leave their current provider without any early termination fees or penalties.

  • Those who signed a three-year contract between June 3-Dec. 3, 2013:

crtcThings get more complicated for customers in this window. While carriers quickly introduced new two-year plans, there are a number of customers who managed to sign a three-year contract during this transition period. These longer contracts have also been cut to 24 months by the CRTC, but an early termination fee may still apply if the contract has not run a full two years and carriers will be permitted to get back their device subsidy if you have not yet paid off your device.

If you like your current carrier, you can stay on your existing contract and nothing will change. If you are ready to leave for another provider, you will need to calculate the termination fee you are likely to owe when you cancel service.

If you accepted a device subsidy to reduce the cost of your device, here is the formula to determine your payoff amount:

Jane Smith signed a contract with Rogers in the late fall of 2013. She is now about 20 months into her contract, which the CRTC has now automatically shortened from its original three years to two. For our purposes, let us say she received a device subsidy of $240 (the exact amount of the device subsidy you received is available from your provider.)

Carriers like Vidéotron offer customers discounts if they bring their old device along.

Carriers like Vidéotron offer customers discounts if they bring their old device along.

To calculate the payoff amount to buy out and cancel the contract, take the original device subsidy and divide it by 24. In our example, that equals $10. That means for each month Jane has been in her contract, she has repaid $10 towards the $240 subsidy she received. In this example, she has made 20 payments under contract, which means she has paid back $200 and still owes an additional $40. When she cancels service to switch to Bell (or whatever other carrier she chooses), her exit fee will be $40.

The CRTC also allows carriers to collect an Early Termination Fee (ETF) from customers who paid for a device upfront or brought their own when they signed a contract. These no-subsidy customers must either wait until 24 months have passed from the contract signing date or pay an ETF of the lesser of $50 or 10% of the minimum monthly charge for the remaining months of the now two-year contract.

Bill Smith brought his old iPhone to Telus and signed a three-year contract at the same time Jane did. The CRTC has already lopped off one year of his contract. He will hit the 24 month mark four months from now, but wants to leave to switch to Vidéotron Mobile today. The minimum monthly charge on his Telus bill is $65. For the remaining four months on his contract, he has to pay 10% of $65 for his termination penalty, which amounts to $26 total — his ETF.

Howard Maker, chief executive officer of the CCTS, said, “The calculation is maybe a bit challenging, because not all customers’ contracts will indicate what the device subsidy is.”

Some customers have used the impending end of their contracts as a tool to negotiate a better deal, but it can be tough finding one. After the demise of the three-year contract, last fall many Canadian cell providers raised the monthly price of service on two-year contracts to recoup lost profits.

Bell Canada’s Fibe Internet is the Top Netflix Performer in North America; Google Fiber is #2

Although Verizon FiOS retained top honors as the speediest major U.S. ISP according to performance tests conducted by Netflix, Canada’s Bell (BCE) Fibe Internet squeezed past Google Fiber as North America’s top performing ISP for the streaming video provider.

Bell’s fiber optic network delivered an average Netflix stream at 3.64Mbps, compared with 3.63Mbps for Google Fiber. Also performing exceptionally well, Grande Communications, EPB Fiber, CDE Lightband, and Midcontinent Communications. Cox turned in a significant improvement, up from 3.11Mbps last November. But many of Canada’s ISPs outperformed their American counterparts, particularly Bell Aliant, MTS, and Quebec’s Vidéotron.

Globally, both Canada and the United States were embarrassed by better average speeds in the United Kingdom (3.42Mbps) and Switzerland (4.04Mbps). Dragging down the U.S. and Canada are underperforming cable companies, DSL, and slow wireless. Clearwire was the worst performer overall, but telephone company DSL services from AT&T, Verizon, Frontier, Windstream, CenturyLink and FairPoint were also dismal performers.

A complete listing of ISPs rated by Netflix for the month of April in the United States and Canada follows:

UNITED STATES

us-1

us-2

us-3

CANADA

canada

CRTC Orders Northwestel to Cut Rates for DSL Service in the Northern Territories by 10-30%

northwestelMore than three years after Canadian regulators required Bell Canada’s northern subsidiary, Northwestel, to undertake a $233 million modernization and upgrade plan, the CRTC has ruled the company is overcharging consumers for Internet access and has ordered rate cuts.

Customers in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Yukon pay some of the highest prices in the world for DSL Internet access, more than three times higher than what comparable broadband costs in southern Canada. The CRTC has found those prices unjustifiable, especially after its 2011 finding that Northwestel enjoyed strong financial performance while chronically underinvesting in its network.

The CRTC decision requires the company to cut prices for its DSL Internet 5 (5Mbps/512kbps) and DSL Internet 16 (16Mbps/768kbps) in N.W.T. and Yukon by 30% this May. Northwestel’s budget plans DSL Internet Lite (768/128kbps) and DSL Internet 2 (2.5Mbps/384kbps) will be reduced in price by 10 percent.

Customers of Northwestel’s most popular DSL plans pay between $65-90 a month for 2.5 or 5Mbps service with usage caps of 40 and 125GB per month, respectively.

Customers will also no longer face a $20/month broadband-only surcharge if they don’t want landline service and Northwestel’s overlimit fee, now $2-3/GB in the Northwest Territories, will be cut by at least $0.50/GB.

“Although we recognize the exceptional situation that exists in Northwestel’s territory, we must not let these challenges hinder the development and affordability of telecommunications services in the North,” said Jean-Pierre Blais, the CRTC’s chairman, in a March 4 release. “Access to reasonably priced Internet services plays an essential role in the North’s economic and social development. With this decision, we are reducing the gap between what consumers pay for Internet services in the northern and southern parts of Canada.”

Because of the company’s past pricing practices, Northwestel will not be permitted to increase residential Internet rates until the end of 2017 at the earliest, and will need CRTC approval for any other rate increases.

northwestel-operating-map

Northwestel’s operating service area includes the Yukon, Northwest Territories, northern British Columbia and Nunavut.

 

Residents in the northwestern and north-central regions of Canada have complained for years about poor service and high prices charged by Northwestel for Internet access.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CBC North Northwestel gets slammed in Whitehorse 6-20-13.flv

Back in the summer of 2013, Northwestel was the subject of a CRTC public hearing that got heated after customers and competitors complained the company had a de facto monopoly. (2:53)

At a 2013 hearing, Blais heard from a number of angry residents upset about Northwestel’s performance.

“I know you are frustrated; we heard it from the interveners, but we’ve pushed things considerably,” Blais said at the time.

kfn logo“The DSL package that I pay for out at Lake Lebarge is absolutely ridiculous in comparison to high-speed in town,” said Jeremy Jones. “[Northwestel charges] $90 for [5Mbps DSL with a usage cap of] 125GB. The only way to increase it would be to put in another phone line and second modem and that would have ended up being another $100+ per month. We’ve decided it is cheaper just to go over it if we need to.”

Customers are also frustrated by the fact the company receives over $20 million annually in federal subsidies, but those benefiting the most from Northwestel’s finances are its shareholders.

Native communities in isolated areas of northern Canada have learned it is better to build their own networks than wait for promises from Northwestel to be fulfilled.

The K’atl’Odeeche First Nation built its own fiber network on its reserve in Hay River, N.W.T. after Northwestel reneged on an agreement to improve existing DSL service. Today, the native community gets better Internet access than the rest of Hay River, and the community is willing to share their enhanced Internet connectivity with Northwestel for the benefit of others nearby if the company would agree to connect to it.

“We saved them millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades and I think it’s only fair that they lease a small portion of that infrastructure for them to meet their CRTC mandate,” said Lyle Fabian, the IT manager for the First Nation.

Fabian believes other First Nations should strive for broadband self-sufficiency by also building their own networks to take control of their digital future. In almost every case, Fabian said, those networks will deliver better service than what is on offer from Northwestel.

While the CRTC-ordered rate cuts will help customers in the Yukon and Northwest Territories almost immediately, Internet access in satellite-based Nunavut will continue to be exorbitantly expensive until the CRTC completes a review of those rates. Nunavut residents pay $179.95 a month for 5Mbps/512kbps service with a 30GB usage cap.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/First Mile -- First Mile Community Stories Tour Katlodeeche First Nation Community Network 5-23-12.mp4

Henry Tambour from K’atl’odeeche First Nation in the Northwest Territories of Canada gives a 2012 tour of the first phase of the locally owned and operated fiber network. The community of 300 elected to take control of their broadband future back from Northwestel. (4:12)

Rogers Cable Dumping Usage Caps for More Customers; New Ignite Plans for Unlimited Video Streaming

rogersThe cable company that used to make you think twice about every online video you watch doesn’t want you to think about that anymore.

Rogers Cable, eastern Canada’s largest cable company, has traditionally been one of the stingiest usage cappers in the Canadian broadband business. But now the company is marketing the fact many of its Internet plans are now usage-cap free.

Today, Rogers introduced Rogers Ignite Unlimited, 100/10 and 200/20Mbps Internet plans that come with unlimited usage, subscriptions to Rogers NHL GameCentre LIVE and shomi, Rogers’ TV Everywhere service.

“We’ve redesigned our plans to give our customers unlimited usage options with consistent, reliable speeds so they can surf more, stream more and share more without worrying about going over their limit or getting a spotty connection,” said Robert Goodman, senior director, Rogers Communications.

Goodman says the new plans are specifically designed to handle the increasing bandwidth demands of video streaming, which can quickly chew through any customer’s usage allowance. Rogers’ officials admit that 50 percent of the traffic on its broadband network is now video streaming and that customers’ Internet usage has spiked by 60 percent annually.

That growth, without a corresponding increase in usage allowances, offers a natural deterrent to cord-cutting and online viewing. Viewers who exceed their usage allowance face stiff overlimit penalties.

Rogers is not expected to lose any money dropping usage caps from its higher-end Ignite plans, which do not come cheap. The least expensive plans still keep usage caps with a $1.50/GB overlimit fee. Customers bundling multiple services together will pay less than these broadband-only prices:

  • Internet 30 ($64.99): 30/5Mbps with 100GB allowance
  • Rogers Ignite 60 ($74.99): 60/10Mbps with 200GB allowance
  • Rogers Ignite 100u ($84.99): 100/10Mbps with unlimited usage
  • Rogers Ignite 250u ($94.99): 250/20Mbps with unlimited usage

HissyFitWatch: Bell Loses Net Neutrality Case, Threatens to Bury Complaining Consumers In Legal Fees

The first "bricks of paper" arriving from Bell's attorneys in the case of Bell v. Ordinary Canadian consumers

The first legal “bricks of paper” arriving from Bell’s attorneys in the case of Bell v. Ordinary Canadian consumers arrived at the home of Jean-François Mezei of Pointe-Claire, Que.

A Manitoba university student and consumer groups who won their case against Bell’s preferential treatment of its mobile streaming video service are now being threatened with demands they personally cover Bell’s legal expenses as the phone company appeals the ruling in court.

The dispute involves Bell Mobile TV Service — a $5/mo optional add-on that allows Bell’s mobile customers to stream up to 10 hours of video programming, some of it from Bell-owned television networks like CTV, without it counting against the customer’s usage cap. Each additional hour costs $3. The service prices usage based on time, not data usage, which lets Bell stream very high quality video to customers. Competitors like Netflix do not have this option and their customers are billed based on the amount of data consumed, which is around 800 percent higher than what Bell Mobile TV charges.

University of Manitoba graduate student Benjamin Klass filed a complaint with the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in 2013 accusing Bell of violating Net Neutrality and creating an anti-competitive marketplace for online video. ​Twelve of the 43 channels available on Mobile TV — including CTV, TSN and The Movie Network — are owned by Bell Media, a subsidiary, like Bell Mobility, of the media behemoth BCE.

Klass alleged the practice was a clear violation of Canada’s laws governing broadcasting: “No Canadian carrier shall, in relation to the provision of a telecommunications service or the charging of a rate for it, unjustly discriminate or give an undue or unreasonable preference toward any person, including itself, or subject any person to an undue or unreasonable disadvantage.”

The CRTC agreed with Klass and in late January ruled in favor of Klass’ complaint, giving Bell and Quebec-based Vidéotron (which offers a similar service) until the end of April to close them down in their present form.

BCE, the parent of Bell Mobility, told the CBC it was “shocked” by the CRTC’s ruling, suspecting the complaining groups mislead regulators into thinking Bell favored its own content over others.

“There’s a hint here that the government believes Bell Mobile TV delivers only Bell Media content,” spokesman Jason Laszlo said. “They should know we offer mobile TV content from all of Canada’s leading broadcasters in English and French.”

Bell_Mobility logoLaszlo added Bell-owned content only comprises 20% of Bell Mobile TV programming and that the ruling would deprive more than 1.5 million current Bell Mobile TV subscribers from getting the service after the spring deadline to shut it down.

The CRTC and consumer groups argue that is beside the point.

“At its core, this decision isn’t so much about Bell or Vidéotron,” CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais said at a breakfast luncheon in London, Ont., in late January. “It’s about all of us and our ability to access content equally and fairly, in an open market that favours innovation and choice. The CRTC always wants to ensure ­— and this decision supports this goal ­— that Canadians have fair and reasonable access to content. It may be tempting for large vertically integrated companies to offer certain perks to their customers. But when the impetus to innovate steps on the toes of the principle of fair and open access to content, we will intervene.”

Consumer group OpenMedia says Bell’s motivation isn’t to create a level playing field or provide customers with more options for online video. It’s about artificially inflating the cost of accessing services like Netflix and other independent video companies that are innovating away from the traditional pay television package.

“Bell is doing everything in its power to make the Internet more like cable TV,” said OpenMedia campaigns manager Josh Tabish. “They want the power to pick and choose what we see by forcing competing services into a more expensive toll lane online.”

Klass (Image: CBC)

Klass (Image: CBC)

Bell’s legal strategy going forward is an homage to the one American wireless companies used for years to avoid Net Neutrality.

Bell Mobility argues that Bell Mobile TV is a broadcasting service, not a telecommunications service and therefore doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the Telecommunications Act.

Since the CRTC was not receptive to that argument, Bell is taking the matter to the Federal Court of Appeal, asking it to overturn the CRTC ruling and grant the company court and legal costs paid for by the Canadian consumers that brought the original complaint.

Jean-François Mezei of Pointe-Claire, Que. is among them and has been the unhappy recipient of several parcels containing “bricks of paper” from FedEx he suspects is just the beginning.

Mezei has been tweeting about ongoing developments in the case, and asked Bell, “how come you have no press release bragging about how Bell Mobility is suing individual citizens who participated in [the CRTC complaint]?”

Klass told CBC News he hasn’t yet made up his mind how to respond to the court filing, but admitted it is unnerving.

“In that regard, it really strikes me as a method of intimidation,” he said. “Right off the bat, it has a chilling effect. It appears that Bell is simply pursuing the argument, that it unsuccessfully made to the CRTC, through the court.”

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