ISPs fighting a paper tiger?

By JIM BELL

You can’t really blame the NWT’S Internet service providers for their deep suspicions and equally deep fears concerning the GNWT’s contract with Ardicom Digital Communications.

Among most entrepreneurs and small business people, the GNWT has earned a well-deserved reputation for failing to practice what it preaches. For many years, numerous GNWT officials have extolled the virtues of entrepreneurship and private enterprise, while at the same time engaging in practices that often see contracts going to the most highly skilled political toadies rather than to the most competent and efficient businesses.

As well, in the critical area of telecommunications policy, the GNWT often gives the impression that there’s no one in charge at the top.

Over the past two or three years, the public has heard about an impressive variety of scattered initiatives within a variety of scattered departments – such as Education, Health, Finance and the legislative assembly. But it’s still not clear who’s responsible for coordinating these worthy experiments and pilot projects to make sure the GNWT’s right hand knows what its left hand is up to.

It should be no surprise, then, that the NWT’s small Internet service providers fear that the GNWT officials in charge of telecommunications initiatives may not even be aware that these businesses exist – not to mention the multitude of valuable skills possessed by those working in them.

In two rancorous meetings, representatives of the NWT’s small Internet access providers have told GNWT officials that over the past two years a home-grown high technology “industry” has developed within the NWT.

These small pioneering businesses are among the best role models we have for real economic development will occur in the digital age. Most got into business the old-fashioned way – by risking their own and not the taxpayers’ money. They provide northern consumers not only with affordable and usually reliable access to the Internet, but with many other computer and telecommunications services.

Because of the great thirst among northerners for the Internet, most of these small home-grown businesses have been wildly successful in those communities where they have been able to operate.

But now, many of the people who run these businesses are saying that all their hard work may be in vain. Their loudest and most frequent complaint is that by using Ardicom to build a new internal computer network for itself, the GNWT is denying them the chance to do business with their biggest potential customer.

Many say they can do that work better than Ardicom can do it. They’ve also accused the GNWT of acting as its own Internet access provider – in direct competition with them. That’s because the GNWT plans to use the network to provide email addresses and Internet access to its own employees.

They’ve taken their lobbying campaign to the media and to MLAs. One member, Thebacha MLA Michael Miltenberger, normally known as a docile tool of the territorial cabinet, has already raised the issue in the assembly and appears ready to do so again.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the territory’s ISP’s, who have cast themselves in a classic David versus Goliath drama. But this time around, the little Davids may not be as hard done by as may believe.

Just last week, a small Fort Providence company called SSI Micro won a $1.5 million contract to install computer equipment in health care centers across the NWT, part of a new telemedicine network that Ardicom will support.

That’s a big contract for a small business. It’s also represents an opportunity that would not have existed without the GNWT’s contract with Ardicom.

It may well be that some ISPs will lose some business as some territorial government departments and agencies stop using them to supply Internet access to their employees. But it’s also clear that the GNWT’s Ardicom contract will create new, lucrative opportunities for them.

As long as the GNWT is prepared to contract out such work in an honest manner, the public has no reason to worry. Despite its limitations, and the many delays in getting it off the ground, Ardicom’s high-speed network is likely to be remembered by future generations as one of this government’s best initiatives – a Christmas present for the next millennium.

As for the NWT’s small ISPs, they had better get ready to compete. JB

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