Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rural high-speed Internet, phone rebates on the way

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Manitobans got a double dose of good news Tuesday after a ruling from the CRTC.

For city dwellers, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ordered the country's large telcos to give back more than $310 million to urban home telephone customers within the next six months. That works out to between a $20 and $90 rebate per account in Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

Out-of-towners in 16 different Manitoba communities, meanwhile, will be able to catch the high-speed wave for the first time -- within the next four years, mind you -- as the CRTC has approved a $421-million plan to bring broadband Internet service to 287 remote and rural centres across the country.

Greg Burch, director of corporate and employee communications for MTS Allstream, said the Winnipeg-based telco has received the CRTC decision and is reviewing the details.

"We'll certainly communicate with customers as we move forward to implement the decision," he said, noting only home phone subscribers are eligible for the rebate, not wireless, Internet or television customers.

The windfall comes from a $770-million fund collected from the so-called Bell companies by the CRTC.

"(Tuesday's) announcement is a positive solution for Canadian consumers," CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein said in a statement.

"Subscribers of the major telephone companies in urban areas will enjoy a rebate on their home telephone service. And residents in hundreds of rural communities will soon be able to take advantage of the many social and economic benefits broadband Internet access provides."

In 2002, the CRTC stopped the phone companies from lowering their rates in urban areas in order to protect new competition in the local, home-phone market. The commission diverted that money to a so-called deferral account.

By 2006, competition in local phone service was established and there was no more need to keep an artificial floor on the rates. (Shaw Communications arrived to take on MTS on this front.) The commission then had to figure out how to distribute the money.

The issue went to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2008, with a consumer group arguing that the entire amount should go back to consumers in a rebate. The phone companies wanted to spend the fund on service improvements in the rural areas. The court sided with the commission's formula for allocating the cash.

The CRTC said in its decision that $310.8 million will go to urban, home-phone customers. Another $421.9 million will be spent on better rural Internet access and $35 million will help improve accessibility for disabled Canadians.

The companies involved in the rebates and improvements to rural broadband include Bell Canada, Bell Aliant, Telus and MTS Allstream. SaskTel will use its $1.5-million share of the fund entirely for improved access for the disabled.

Burch said MTS didn't have a specific timeline on when the high-speed service would be launched but it would be up and running no later than August 2014.


-- With files from The Canadian Press


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2010 A10

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