According to Northwestel, competition is forcing internet improvements in the North

Northwestel says it’s working to improve internet service in the North — and doesn’t need to be mandated by Canada’s Telecoms Authority to do so.

Company officials brought their case before the Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) during hearings in Whitehorse last week.

Northwestel spoke to the commission on Friday after several days of testimonies explaining how northern communities — particularly remote and Indigenous communities — are being crippled economically and socially by slow and unreliable internet connections and high prices.

Northwestel President Curtis Shaw told the CRTC that his company faces a new competitive threat from the Starlink satellite service, which began its northern rollout late last year.

“Our capital investments have increased over the past several years, driven in large part by competitive forces and the entry of Starlink,” Shaw said.

He said the company has major projects underway over the next few years to extend fiber to more northern communities and build redundancies into the system to reduce the number of prolonged outages.

“So from my perspective, right now we’re being pushed by consumer needs, community needs and competitive forces to accelerate our capital expenditures,” Shaw said.

Company officials told the Commission that Starlink is already penetrating its customer base.

“We definitely feel a very real impact. We have customers who are telling us, ‘I’m disconnecting my service because I’m moving to Starlink,'” said Tammy April, the company’s vice president of customer experience.

“To my knowledge, none of our customers who switched to Starlink have returned.”

Northerners on the ‘wrong side of the digital divide’

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Last week’s hearings in Whitehorse came just weeks after the release of a report from Canada’s Audit Office that said rural and remote communities still lag far behind the rest of the country in terms of internet access – and nowhere is it difference larger than in some parts of the north.

Northwestel told the CRTC on Friday that it has lowered tariffs and speeds on some of the larger internet plans in recent years and has also rolled out an affordable entry-level plan. About 26,000 households in the north have been connected to unlimited high-speed internet in recent years, the commission heard.

Still, Shaw told the commission that despite improvements, “many northerners remain on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

“Of course, there remain areas where there is no sustainable business case for the private sector to bridge the digital divide on its own, and we have put forward proposals for targeted public investment to the Commission,” he said. The company was also asked about data caps and the possibility of eliminating overage fees.

That is simply not possible for many communities that are still supplied via DSL or satellite, company representatives said, because the infrastructure is not there to process so much data.

“We use overage plans to ensure the network isn’t overly congested,” April said.

“Whenever we raise the caps, we do so very sensibly and we often see network congestion affecting quality for customers.”