Wednesday 23 December 2009

Comments on a Telcom Dispatch Article

I submitted the following rebuttal to a  Fox Group Media article which implied that HSPA cellular service would solve numerous problems in rural areas.


Ms. Fox:

I wish to take issue with some of the comments in the Telcom Dispatch Issue 53, December 19, 2009 article entitled “Converging Environments in the Wireless Worlds.” I find some of the points misleading.


I am a resident of rural Canada, specifically the Algoma Distinct of northern Ontario, that only has spotty 1X CDMA service and very little likelihood of getting anything else in the near future In spite of owning spectrum for nearly two decades, none of the national vendors provide cellular service in the area except along the Hwy 17 corridor between Sault Ste. Marie (SSM) and Sudbury. If you are travelling along the Trans-Canada forget about using your HSPA or GSM phone after leaving SSM until you travel the 700 km plus to Thunder Bay (TB). Depending on the route taken, you may receive intermittent service between TB and the Manitoba border.


TBayTel, with assistance from the provincial government (Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation) and the federal government (FedNor), has done a fantastic job in providing the service we have and their Regional in Fill (RIF) project targeted for completion in 2010 will enhance their CDMA service along the Trans-Canada highway corridor. However, numerous coverage gaps will exist especially on the alternate major highways. As of this writing, TBayTel has not made public any plans to install a HSPA/GSM overlay on their network.


While past articles in the Telcom Dispatch have been critical of government subsidies for rural areas, I think most commentators have ignored the fact that the cellular services provided benefit all Canadians that use the road networks across the area. As the article rightly notes, robust Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is an essential part of Economic Development (ED). As a fringe player in the ED arena, the first questions I am usually asked by potential clients concern the availability of cellular and broadband (high speed Internet) service. If an area does not have at one of them, the client quickly moves on.


Two areas that should be of concern to all but seldom get mentioned are safety and the environment. The north is an area of great distances. In the winter, the roads can be very dangerous. There are numerous examples of instances where cellular coverage has saved lives. Also, but using ICT, the need for travel and the associated pollution and carbon emissions can be reduced.


One of the myths being perpetuated is that HSPA will provide broadband (high speed Internet) to rural and remote areas. On the technical side, this might be true - if the service was available. The same reasons that make it uneconomical to roll-out IP enabled cable services and telco based ADSL broadband (high speed Internet) also apply to the roll-out of cellular services. This is one of the reasons cellular service is only available along major highways and in urban population centres. In a number of cases, where HSPA service is available, terrestrial based broadband (high speed Internet) systems are also available so there is not a lot of net gain.


However, the biggest draw back to the use of HSPA as a broadband (high speed Internet) alternative is the cost. People in the area who have used the HSPA or EV-DO option have often been shocked when they receive the first bill.  The current data plan caps in the 5 GB range are not realistic for a business operator or even a family with active teenagers. When the user reaches the cap, the cost per kilobit rises dramatically. The new entrant also seems to think 5 GB is just fine.


An alternate finding some acceptance in the area is point-to-multipoint (P-MP) wireless systems. Users appear willing to trade throughput for reasonable costs. Unfortunately, the many technical restrictions of P-MP may make it a short term stop gap. Many of the systems available will not exceed a download of 4 Mbps and most are restricted to 1.5 Mbps; unfortunately, this is the minimum service requirements under the Broadband Canada program.


In closing, I want to mention satellite “broadband” service. While it is available to all who can afford the initial outlay, it is not really a substitute. I speak from experience as a long time user. While it is better than dial-up, any application requiring a low latency cannot operate satisfactorily over the existing public satellite services. I have not met a user yet that is satisfied with satellite service, myself included.


P.S. I have attached a map I often use when trying to explain the distances involved in the north. It is often very humorous to watch the reaction. It shows an outline of the Algoma District overlaid on southern Ontario; both are the same scale.


map_combined_S&N (2)

Friday 18 December 2009

New Cellular Entrants


There has been a lot of hype recently about the entry into the marketplace of new cellular telephone companies. Pundits and others on the blogosphere touted their anticipated arrival  as a potentially great day for the Canadian consumer as it would teach the big three - Bell, Rogers and Telus - a lesson in humility.

Globealive, operating as Wind Mobile, was the first new entrant off the mark. After a careful perusal of their website and as a rural northern Ontario resident, I was not impressed.

If you live in a Wind Home Zone and expect to use you cell phone to talk within that zone or another Wind Home Zone, it is probably a very good alternative to the existing carriers. At the time of writing, only the Toronto and Calgary Home Zones were operational with a promise of more zones in Ottawa, Vancouver, Edmonton in 2010. More cities will follow in the out years.

Anything outside a Home Zone is an Away Zone. Since Wind Mobile uses the same GSM/HSPA technology as Rogers and has a roaming agreement with them, the Away Zone coverage mimics the Rogers coverage map. This means that there is no coverage along the Trans-Canada Highway from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay  or Thunder Bay to the Manitoba border. The same applies to most of the length of Highway 101 from Wawa to Timmins. There are small pockets of third tier GSM availability across the north if Wind Mobile has executed roaming agreements with them. 

Wind Mobile does have consumer friendly features. The most noticeable is that it does not require a customer to sign a 1-3 year contract. One is free to join or leave the network as will and without a penalty.  The trade off for this is that Wind Mobile does not subsidize the initial cost of the phone. Wind Mobile's initial offering consists of four options ranging in price from a high of $450.00 for a BlackBerry to a low of $130.00 for a Huawei U7519. The consumer must pay this up front. It also offers a data stick for $150.00. It is unclear if the hardware is "locked".

Wind Mobile does not charge the most hated of add-on fees - the network access fee or a clone of it. It offers three fixed rate plans which are extremely reasonable if a few principles are adhered to. First and most importantly, never leave the Wind Mobile home network. Once the you are outside a Wind Home Zone or not calling another Wind Mobile subscriber, roaming charges, - or AWAY Minute in Wind Mobile speak - are $.25 per minute for voice. There are a number other charges for different off-net scenarios. I suspect there will be some surprise when the early adopters get their first bill.

If one lives and works in a Wind Mobile Home Zone, it is probably a very good product. Unfortunately, there is little direct advantage for anywhere in the District except East Algoma where for a price Wind Mobile could roam on the Rogers network. In directly, the new entrant might put enough pressure on the incumbents to meet or beat the competition.

Friday 6 November 2009

TBayTel Presentation at the Regional Mayors Group 04 Nov 09

Senior management from TBayTel attended the Regional Mayors Group (RMG) meeting in Wawa on Wednesday, 04 Nov 09. The team of Simone Laatu and Barry Streib touched on a number of issues raised by the mayors and other regional residents.

They centred their remarks on three main areas:

a. Cellular problems in specific communities;

b. The Regional Fill-in Project (RIF)

c. Future technology

TBayTel is very aware of recent service problems in Chapleau, Hornepayne and Manitouwadge. Ms. Laatu assured the RMG that the problem was not the cell site itself but rather the radio backhaul links that provide the connectivity from the individual cell site to the switching centre in Thunder Bay. The current system is being upgraded as part of the RIF. There is major rebuild in the works for the Manitouwadge site as a result of TBayTel’s involvement with medical IT network services.

A secondary issue is the different hardware that is installed at various points in the network. Much of the eastern part of the TBayTel cellular network was installed by Superior Wireless Inc (SWI) prior to their acquisition by TBayTel. This resulted in the existence of two different hardware platforms, which in turn resulted in differences in how some long distance calls are handled at the handset level. The hardware difference also causes issues with the customer billing system. TBayTel is actively rationalizing all sites to a single hardware manufacturer.

The RIF program covers all parts of the TBayTel network. The project involves the establishment of new cellular sites, wireless broadband (high speed Internet) and a major upgrade to the backhaul systems as noted above. The program concentrates on the King’s highways corridors and it partially funded by NOHFC and FedNor. It is anticipate that most of the backhaul work will be completed in the Algoma District by the end of 2009 and customers should notice the difference in call quality for the troubled areas.

TBayTel assured the mayors that they were aware of the recent changes in the Bell Mobility and Telus wireless networks and were developing plans that would address the issue. They assured the Group that the current network would be in place for the foreseeable future but that in the long term a different technical solution might be developed.

Friday 30 October 2009

North Sault Broadband Update 30 Oct 09

TBayTel recently provided an update on the broadband deployment for the North Sault area. The latest updates can be viewed at the ADnet website.

The major changes are: Heyden, Batchawana and Hawk Junction delayed until the end of December 09; Searchmont has been moved forward to the end of December 09; and the remainder North Sault sites are scheduled for 4th Quarter 2010.

Saturday 8 August 2009

SAWS Project Update

Important Update Concerning SAWS Project


The purpose of this blog is to inform you that the ADnet South Algoma/West Sault (SAWS) Broadband Gap Filler project has been placed on “hold” awaiting clarification of recent funding policy changes by the federal and provincial governments. This action is due mainly to the uncertainty of the impact on subsidy funding caused by the announcement about the creation of the federal Broadband Canada program.


On July 20, 2009 MNDMF/NOHFC staff implied in an exchange of communications with ADnet that the provincial criteria for broadband funding support was in a state of limbo as a result of the creation of the federal Broadband Canada program but did not provide a lot of details.

Unfortunately, to date Industry Canada has published only a general overview and loose guidelines for the Broadband Canada program with detailed information to be announced in the summer of 2009. While the Broadband Canada website indicates “…Program implementation will seek to ensure that federal investments complement, not duplicate, initiatives already under way” and “… will seek to identify those areas where expansion is currently planned by provinces/territories or the private sector in order to ensure the federal investment is complementary, not duplicative, to programs already underway” there is not a clear understanding by either the federal or provincial authorities I am in contact with exactly what these statements mean.

A major area that requires reconciliation is the differences in approach between the federal and provincial programs; Broadband Canada proposes to fund directly with broadband vendors while the province currently funds through a third party facilitator such as ADnet.

One change that did become evident on July 20th was that since the announcement of Broadband Canada, the provincial funding program now excluded any areas identified as being part of the CRTC Deferral Account litigation currently before the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC). This meant that the West Sault broadband requirements had to be removed from the project scope as the total area was addressed in the Bell Canada CRTC Deferral Account submissions. (One can only assume that the decision to remove the Deferral Account areas is based on the presumption that the SCC will rule in favour of the Deferral Account program proceeding. It is not clear what happens if the SCC rules otherwise.)

The vendors were advised of the change by e-mail on July 24th. On the same date, I wrote a letter to the NOHFC Executive Director asking for a definitive answer as to whether or not NOHFC would process a funding application predicated on the results of the RFP for the South Algoma/West Sault Area in light of the Broadband Canada program. A copy is attached. A preliminary response indicates that there may be a delay in the final response due to holiday schedules.

Until I receive a reply from NOHFC, the availability of provincial funding is in the air. If the province is not prepared to consider a funding application, then I am asking the vendors to expend a lot of resources for no purpose.

Under the circumstances I felt there were three viable options:

(1) cancel the RFP

(2) proceed as per the amended RFP scope but extend the due date to mid September to accommodate the scope change;

(3) place a “hold” on the RFP pending further clarifications; or

After consultations with the vendors and other advisors, I decide to adopt option (3) and place a “hold” on the project. Further action will depend on information provided by the federal and provincial authorities. This means the responses due on August 11th are postponed and the there will be no evaluation panel held during the week of August 17.

I am extremely disappointed that it was necessary to take this action at this time but I felt it was the only fair option for all concerned. I will continue to monitor the situation closely and make adjustments as necessary.

On the positive side, my discussions with Bell Aliant indicate they are ready to move quickly if the SCC decision which is expected in September 2009 favours proceeding with the Deferral Account program. The West Sault area is part of the first tranche for implementation and could be completed within months of a favourable decision.

I will issue additional update as news become available or monitor the website at

Broadband Canada Impact

This blog refers to to this article in SooToday or the original release with the same info.

As of the writing of this blog, neither I nor any of my colleagues have any idea what the impact of the federal announcement and the follow-up provincial announcement later the same day will have on northern Ontario.

The former (because his position was made redundant last week) broadband coordinator at the MNDMF office in Thunder Bay told me orally that MNDMF/NOHFC would not support any funding for areas that were identified in the CRTC Deferral Account documents. St Joseph Island was one such area as were parts of Echo Bay, Prince Township, the SSM-Airport area and Goulais River.

The Deferral Account issue is still waiting for the Supreme Court of Canada decision which is expected in September. Bell Aliant has divulged to me that they are very confident that they will win the argument and are really to start installing Deferral Account areas almost immediately. They figure it may take up to four years to finish all of the 300 plus areas identified in the Deferral Account program. At the moment, St Joseph is identified as scheduled for late the first year or early the second year and will cover the entire Island. If the Supreme Court rules against Bell, all bets are off.

Neither the federal or provincial sites have explicit directions on how to access the money being announced or what the procedures will be. Even the broad strokes are confusing – the federal site says 50/50 fed/industry funding while the provincial site says 33/33/33 fed/prov/industry funding.

Also, the $225M the feds are identifying is spread over three years for all of Canada. Based on the information provided by the province, it looks like they expect to receive about $10M per year for three years of the federal money. Using the 1/3 formula this could total of $90M over three years for province-wide coverage of the unserved areas (minus the Deferral Account areas.)

I wrote a letter to the Executive Director, NOHFC asking for a clear policy statement on funding and a recommended way to proceed. I am still awaiting a reply which would indicate to me they will be making things up on the fly.  

I am also in contact with the federal coordinator for Ontario who is located in Toronto so he must have a good understanding of northern Ontario needs.

There is a chance for you to provide some feed back to the government at this site . You can subscribe to the federal mailing list at this site and receive the latest confusing announcements.

The bottom line is that at the moment the impact all these announcements will have is still up in the air.