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Bell wins nod to use wireless option in rural Web rollout

A sign on the main street in downtown Olds, Alta., advertises "rural high-speed" Internet

Chris Bolin Photography Inc./The Globe and Mail

Exactly which technology is best suited to closing the digital divide will remain a key point of contention as CRTC hearings resume Monday in Gatineau, Que.

But one of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's own decisions last week hints at the regulator's thinking on which technologies make the most sense when rolling out high-quality broadband Internet into rural communities.

Last week, the regulator began investigating, at a hearing in Timmins, Ont., whether the "obligation to serve" principle that applies to home phone service and dial-up Internet should be extended to more advanced Internet technologies. On Friday, the CRTC issued a separate ruling, saying Bell Canada can use a pool of regulatory fees to roll out broadband Internet using wireless technologies, overturning an earlier decision that would have forced Bell to roll wires into those communities with costly Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) networks.

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Critics have argued that wireless technology, like satellite technology, is not a good substitute for more expensive wired networks, and that it is not a "future-proof" technology able to handle tomorrow's technical requirements. But advocates of the technology, including giants such as Bell and Telus Corp., say it is simply unreasonable to dig or string wires into extremely remote communities without immense government subsidy.

"It does indicate that the commission is finally prepared to accept superior wireless technology as a broadband alternative," said Mirko Bibic, Bell's senior vice-president for regulatory and government affairs. "I think it has implications for how we perceive the very few portions of Canada that have yet to be served can be served in the future."

(Bell's rivals, including Rogers Communications Inc., reminded the regulator that advanced wireless networks were already available in some of the communities in Ontario and Quebec where the regulator was ordering Bell to extend service. The networks were set up as part of a long-standing subsidy regime that saw companies pay part of their revenues into the regulator's "deferral accounts.")

Mr. Bibic, however, stressed he does not think the CRTC should force companies such as Bell to extend rural service. Last week, in Timmins, much of the discussion revolved around whether a mandated "obligation" would bring the Internet to Canadians in remote locations or whether it would distort the market, chill further investment and actually damage rural communities' chances of getting high-speed Internet access, which is often more expensive and less reliable outside urban areas.

James Van Leeuwen, a consultant who has advised the Alberta government on digital economy and rural economic development issues, said wireless networks lack the speed and capacity for many future applications, and that rural areas will die without advanced networks.

"This is a question that we still aren't asking: What are the needs not just today, but going forward?" he asked. "From an economic development standpoint, wireless is just not going to do it."

Like some of the presenters before the CRTC, he thinks that the government should mandate service. But to Mr. Van Leeuwen, the answer is more than just broadband Internet access but full, publicly funded, ultra-fast fibre-optic networks that local providers and communities can plug into, such as the Alberta SuperNet.

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Like some appearing before the CRTC last week, Mr. Van Leeuwen doesn't believe market forces alone will close the gap between rural and urban service quality and believes that governments need to also invest in digital literacy programs to help people realize the benefits of technology.

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