CRTC orders inquiry into satellite telecommunications across Canada

Watchdog wants more information on costs faced by Nunavut, Nunavik, other remote regions served by Telesat


Northwestel will launch inquiry next year into satellite telecommunications in Canada, work that will include inquiries into Telesat, which provides almost all telecom services in Nunavut and many other remote regions. (FILE PHOTO)

Northwestel will launch inquiry next year into satellite telecommunications in Canada, work that will include inquiries into Telesat, which provides almost all telecom services in Nunavut and many other remote regions. (FILE PHOTO)

(Updated 3:30 p.m., Dec. 18)

Canada’s telecommunications watchdog, the CRTC, will launch an inquiry early next year into satellite telecommunication services offered by Telesat across remote regions throughout northern Canada, including Nunavut and Nunavik.

This announcement is part of a big decision the CRTC released Dec. 18 on Northwestel’s recent $233 million modernization proposal and telecommunications regulation in northern Canada.

In it, the CRTC said they must do more work to figure out how to fix the growing gap between regions served by land-based systems like fibre-optic and microwave, and remote regions served only by satellite.

“A digital divide exists within Northwestel’s vast service territory,” Jean-Pierre Blais, chair of the CRTC, said in a Dec. 18 news release.

“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,” Blais said.

The entire Nunavut territory depends solely on highly expensive satellite telecommunications, almost all of which is provided by Telesat.

Blais told reporters in a teleconference that because the CRTC decided years ago not to regulate Telesat, it doesn’t know enough about the company now.

“Because we have forborne from regulating Telesat for quite some time, our evidence base here at the commission is lacking,” Blais said.

And he said that at CRTC hearings held earlier this year in Whitehorse and Inuvik on Northwestel’s modernization plan, some interveners said it was “unfortunate” that Telesat did not participate in the proceedings.

“That made our evidence gathering even more of a challenge,” Blais said.

To offer telecom services in Nunavut, Northwestel must pay Telesat for high-cost satellite transport services.

But in its Dec. 18 decision, the CRTC said it received “insufficient information” to make an informed decision related to Northwestel’s operating costs in the satellite-dependent sections of its serving area.

To that end, the CRTC wants more precise information about Telesat before it issues more rulings aimed at fixing the digital divide between satellite and non-satellite communities.

That could include a new subsidy regime to support broadband internet in remote regions across Canada, the CRTC said.

And Blais said revamping the high-cost-area subsidy that Northwestel gets for landline service in remote communities to cover broadband service in satellite-dependent communities is also on the table.

That’s an issue that a variety of players, including the Nunavut Broadband Development Corp. and SSI Micro have asked the CRTC to look at in the past.

On this point, the CRTC said they want to know more about Telesat’s services, including its rates, its cost structure and the extent of its satellite capacity.

The CRTC also wants to look at whether other firms are capable of offering satellite service in remote regions.

“Further, the Commission notes that there are other satellite operators that could offer alternative transport services to telecommunications service providers in many communities in Northwestel’s operating territory,” the CRTC said.

As for the “inquiry officer,” Blais said that person, likely a current CRTC commissioner, will be named early next year.

And it’s likely the CRTC inquiry officer will travel to various satellite-based communities and regions to meet stakeholders, Blais said.

Other regions served only by satellite include Nunavik, other large sections of northern Quebec, northern Ontario and other remote regions across the country.

“The information collected by the commission for its annual Communications Monitoring Report confirms that Canadians in many other rural and remote parts of the country do not enjoy the same level of telecommunications services as other Canadians,” the CRTC decision said.

Blais told reporters that the CRTC cannot fix that issue on its own, and that governments must also step in.

It’s not clear if that will happen. In 2016, the Industry Canada subsidy system the federal government uses to support satellite broadband services in remote regions expires.

The CRTC did not offer any comment on Arctic Fibre’s plan to connect New York, London and Tokyo with a fibre-optic cable that runs past Nunavik, Nunavut, the western Northwest Territories and Alaska.

That proposal now sits before a variety of regulators, including the Nunavut Impact Review Board.

On Dec. 18, the CRTC also accepted Northwestel’s modernization plan, with some changes that must be submitted to the CRTC by March 31 next year.

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