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Why yes, that is Prime Minister Stephen Harper riding a snow mobile in Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit, Nunavut on Thursday, February 23, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Why yes, that is Prime Minister Stephen Harper riding a snow mobile in Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit, Nunavut on Thursday, February 23, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Digital divide: The high costs of Arctic broadband Add to ...

The scheme hinged, however, on the regulator’s approval of parent Bell’s attempt to purchase Astral Media. Bell had pledged $40-million to northern development as a condition of its proposed $3.4-billion purchase of the broadcaster.

With the CRTC’s outright rejection of the deal last month, it’s back to the drawing board for Northwestel. The company says it is now reviewing its modernization plan, with an eye to suggesting a new one to the regulator by the end of the year. One way or the other, its scope will have to be scaled back, the company says.

In the meantime, it looks like northerners are going to have to hang their hopes on service competition finally springing up in the north.

Some entrepreneurs are already jumping at the opportunity. But who are these interlopers and can they really deliver digital salvation? And is the north big enough in a demographic sense to foster meaningful competition?


“That was a nine out of 10,” says Samer Bishay as he eases his six-seater Eclipse jet to a halt on the runway of the Yellowknife airport.

He’s answering a question from one of his passengers, gauging how close we were to disaster. About an hour earlier, as the midnight sun was just about to set over a beautiful July day in the Northwest Territories capital, the landing gear on Mr. Bishay’s jet refused to deploy.

Mr. Bishay repeatedly wiggled the plane in an effort to shake the wheel loose. When that didn’t work, he turned to the manual on his iPad. It was further disheartening to hear the control tower ask if there were any explosive materials on board.

The three passengers – two of his business colleagues and myself – sat in silence. Later, once on terra firma, we’d half-joke that we were all running through death scenarios in our minds.

After what seemed like an eternity, Mr. Bishay finally turned to his last resort, a red emergency handle on the floor of the cockpit. He pulled it and the yellow landing gear light on the dashboard turned green, indicating it had deployed at last. He exclaimed the thought on everyone’s minds: “Oh thank God!”

From the air, groups of fire trucks and emergency personnel could be seen, ready for the worst. Little did they know that Mr. Bishay was perhaps the competition they had been waiting for.

Aside from flying planes, the 36-year-old entrepreneur is also the president of Toronto-based Iristel, a company that primarily sells Voice over Internet Protocol phone service, as well as Internet access in some markets. As a competitive local exchange carrier – a company that leases network space from owners such as Bell and Telus – it is largely invisible to the average consumer, but it’s well known to businesses that buy phone service.

Iristel is a privately owned company that doesn’t disclose financials, but Mr. Bishay says it provides more than four million phone numbers to companies in every province, making it one of the largest CLECs in the country. Now, his goal is turn Iristel into a truly national enterprise by expanding to the territories. The opportunities there may indeed fit into his wheelhouse.

Born in Cairo, he moved around Africa with his father, who worked for the World Bank. After 10 years in Nigeria and another stint in Egypt, his family emigrated to Canada in 1989 to escape unrest. With dreams of being an astronaut, Bishay ended up studying space and communications science at York University.

In 1997, he interned at the Canadian Space Agency and, the following year, landed a job working in its satellite communications program in Montreal, where he helped maintain Radarsat. The agency was also located near the St. Hubert airport. As a child in Africa he longingly watched crop dusters and dreamt of flying one day. With a flying school virtually next door to his job, he signed up for lessons and started a journey that ultimately led to the near-disaster in Yellowknife.

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