Choice coming in long distance service

New companies want to give us cheaper long distance telephone rates. It’s still too soon to say what that will do to our monthly phone bills.

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

DWANE WILKIN

Northern telephone users will soon find out how and when they’ll get a chance to pay less for long distance telephone calls.

That’s because the CRTC, Canada’s telecommunications watchdog, has ordered Northwestel to submit a plan by May 30 that would bring competition to long-distance telephone services in most of northern Canada.

Right now, Northwestel is the only legal long distance provider in the NWT and Yukon territories. But that could all change.

Call Net Enterprises Inc., a long-distance carrier specializing in discount rates, filed a complaint with the CRTC last October.

Call Net said in its complaint that Northwestel’s monopoly on long-distance telephone service contravenes polices contained in Canada’s Telecommunications Act. The CRTC agreed.

Since 1992, people in southern Canada have enjoyed cheaper long distance rates, thanks to competition provided by new long-distance-only telephone companies ­ most of whom are allied with U.S. telecommunications giants like MCI and AT&T.

North losing special status

At the time, the CRTC made an exception for Northwestel, saying northern Canada is too small and fragile a market to support more than one company.

“The only reason we waited for Northwestel is that we felt it was more fragile than other carriers. We wanted to give it the chance to structure itself,” CRTC spokesperson Jean-Pierre Charest said.

But the CRTC now says the North is ready for competition in long distance telephone services.

Even higher local phone rates?

That, however, is a trend that’s forced consumers pay ever-increasing rates for local phone service.

In the old days, telephone companies charged higher long distance rates and then used the extra money to subsidize the cost of local service.

But to help them compete with new long-distance-only providers, the CRTC has allowed Canada’s telephone companies to raise local telephone rates and lower their long distance rates.

Even in the North, Northwestel’s local phone rates have shot up dramatically, thanks to a series of “rate rebalancing” plans approved by the CRTC.

Change now inevitable

It now looks as if those changes will accelerate.

Through its participation in Ardicom, Northwestel is now carving a new role for itself in the field of digital communications, and has already changed the way it offers local service.

“They’ve had a chance to look at all of this over the years and they know what’s going on in other territories,” Charest said.

“Now it’s up to them to propose to us how they think it should be done with the type of equipment and the type of territory they have.”

Northwestel has said that if the CRTC allows long distance competition, it would have to be in a way that reflects the unique nature of the North.

Its submission is likely to contain a tentative schedule for introducing competition, suggestions for sharing the cost of equipment, and a proposed new rate structure.

The CRTC, meanwhile, has received several written comments from consumers and long-distance carriers since issuing its public notice, including AT&T, Bell Canada and Télébec Ltée.

Proceedings will begin in earnest after Northwestel tables its proposal.

Northern residents will then get a chance to tell the CRTC what they think about the plan.

“All this is taken into consideration by the commission in rendering a decision that both serves the public and at the same time doesn’t destroy the carrier,” Charest said.

Only one public meeting

Northwestel must make its proposal available for public inspection during normal working hours at every Northwestel business office.

Written comments on the proposal may be sent before Oct. 17 to the CRTC, care of Allan J. Darling, secretary-general, CRTC, Ottawa, Ont. K1A 0N2.

Only one regional consultation meeting is scheduled for the NWT, in Yellowknife on June 24. Anyone wishing to make a presentation in person must advise the Commission before June 19.

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