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CRTC hands SSi Micro defeat in bid to open up NWTel network

The CRTC told Canada’s big telecoms operators to open up their networks to smaller rivals on Wednesday – but specifically excluded Northwestel from that decision.

In fact, the regulator did more than that: it awarded Northwestel victory over local rival SSi Micro in a similar case earlier this week.

Whereas the likes of Bell and Telus must now let competitors make greater use of their fibre-optic networks (in return for a fee), SSi Micro has been denied the same opportunity in the Northwest Territories – for now.

In full: CRTC announcement on opening up large companies’ fibre-optic networks

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In full: CRTC decision on SSi Micro’s application to open up Northwestel’s network

Earlier this year, SSi Micro had asked the CRTC to let it share Northwestel’s current high-speed internet service in the Northwest Territories and Yukon. (Northwestel currently holds an effective monopoly on internet service in the North, with control over the infrastructure heading south to the remainder of Canada.)

The smaller company argued opening up Northwestel’s network would mean faster speeds for SSi Micro customers in Yellowknife, let SSi Micro access the market sooner in Whitehorse, and improve customer choice in general. Its position was supported by both the Government of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon Government, in a bid to increase competition.

In response, Northwestel argued that since its services are already regulated by the CRTC, customers’ interests are already protected. Northwestel also claimed the cost of opening up its network to SSi Micro “would significantly exceed any potential benefits for consumers”, according to the CRTC’s summary.

What happens next

The CRTC denied SSi Micro’s application, though not necessarily because it sided with Northwestel’s arguments.

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Instead, the regulator essentially said it needs more time to thoroughly examine Northwestel’s operations after this week’s broader announcement covering Bell, Telus and others. (Northwestel is a Bell subsidiary.)

“Although SSi’s application raises several issues regarding the state of competition in retail internet access and investment in northern telecommunications facilities, the Commission notes that there are several processes currently underway or planned that could impact any assessment,” said the CRTC in a statement.

“A review of Northwestel’s regulatory framework is planned during the 2016-2017 fiscal year. Given the timing of the other proceedings currently underway, the next review of Northwestel’s regulatory framework would be a more appropriate forum to consider whether mandating the provision of wholesale services … for Northwestel would be appropriate.”

In other words, the CRTC can be expected to return to this topic for a more permanent ruling in around two years’ time.

While excluding Northwestel from Wednesday’s broader decision regarding the biggest telecoms companies, the CRTC promised a “separate follow-up proceeding” to determine whether Northwestel should open up its network in the same fashion.

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