Tuesday, May 10, 2005


Opening a cottage country e-window

Bill Hay is bridging a Great Digital Divide

First Nation firm brings high-speed to reserve


WAHTA FIRST NATION, MUSKOKA—The owner of a small First Nations company has brought high-speed Internet to cottage country to ensure that his people are no longer bypassed by broadband.

``We're bringing Wahta to the world,'' said Bill Hay.

His company Indigiinet Corp. is to begin installations of wireless broadband Internet service to homes and businesses on this tiny Muskoka reserve and to their neighbours in cottage country this week.

``We're so proud that one of our members has built that kind of business," said Sylvia Thompson, an elder among the 170 Mohawks living on the Wahta Reserve. "It's very exciting for us to be on the leading edge of the computer age like this.''

Hay, 44, and his wife, Darlene, are already successful entrepreneurs. Their Instapicphoto.com is one of the leading professional digital photographic companies in Canada.

Six years ago, frustrated by the slow speed of dial-up connections when emailing large photo files to clients around the world, Hay decided to seek other options.

``Connectivity was identified as being the biggest barrier to our business here in Wahta,'' said Hay.

When he approached the broadband companies and told them he was from Wahta, the response was not encouraging.

``They told us we were too rural, so we were on our own,'' he said.

Existing telephone systems that link much of rural Ontario can't offer broadband in the form digital subscriber line technology, commonly known as DSL, and cable service doesn't reach many rural areas. As of December 2004, according to Industry Canada data, that left 53 per cent of Ontario communities dialing up to get online.

Satellite broadband service was not an option because the upload speed was too slow for sending Instapic's huge files, said Hay.

He talked to other Wahta businesses, including a water-bottling plant, a haulage company and a building contractor. All said they were suffering the pains of the digital divide doing business on dial-up with a world increasingly wired for broadband.

``I realized our First Nation needed this, so I decided to do something about it,'' said Hay.

He and his wife believed so strongly in the project they cashed in their life savings and went into personal debt to raise the $250,000 needed to launch the company.

``There were no guarantees of funding, so I took it upon myself to finance this project.'' said Hay.

His sister, Sylvia Hay, who was the band's administrator and is now a band councillor, said her band is thrilled to be getting the service because it is becoming increasingly difficult for First Nations communities to function without high-speed Internet.

In an electronic world, government documents from Health Canada and others are now such large files that they are hard to download, said Sylvia Hay.

``It's so tedious using dial-up because the old telephone lines that service our community were never designed to carry data,'' she said, estimating the average dial-up connection speed at Wahta is only 19 kilobits per second.

Sylvia, who is also a host on Hawk 98.3 FM, the local radio station, said even it is hampered by the lack of high-speed Internet. Downloading a 10-minute clip from a news service can take more than an hour.

The reserve operates the Cranberry Marsh and ships orders all over the world, so high-speed access would help speed up order processing, she added.

At least two companies already supply wireless broadband Internet to parts of cottage country, but much of Wahta is not in ``line of sight" of transmission towers.

``Up until now there has been no affordable, reliable solutions,'' Bill Hay said.

He assembled a team of industry experts, developed relationships with telecommunications carriers and launched Indigiinet with the goal of supplying broadband not only to his own people but also to First Nations communities across Canada.

``The response has been overwhelming," said Hay, who is already working to bring broadband to First Nations communities in northern Ontario, British Columbia and on the East Coast.

Sylvia Hay hopes that, one day, all First Nations in Canada will have access to high-speed Internet.

``We exchange a lot of information nation to nation, so it will help us maintain relationships and forge new ones.''

Wahta's cottage-country neighbours have also been so interested that Hay is in the process of launching a wireless broadband service under the brand name ``Cottage, Home and Business High Speed."

Fibre-optic telephone lines bring broadband Internet service to a tower in Midland that relays wireless Internet signals to an antenna on top of a communications tower on the reserve, which in turn transmits Internet to homes and businesses.

Hay's tower operates at a frequency where a ``line of sight'' connection is not as critical and unforgiving as many are, so Hay hopes to offer high-speed Internet to everyone within a 10-kilometre radius. That area includes the community of Bala and some Lake Muskoka cottages.

The eventual goal is to build a series of towers ``just above the trees, so they don't spoil the natural beauty," to supply broadband Internet to all of Muskoka, said Hay.

With the existing tower, and by acting as wholesaler as well as distributor, Hay has managed to keep the cost down to around $200 per household for installation. That compares with as much as $1,200 charged by other wireless companies.

Monthly fees for home use are in the range of $50 for unlimited high-speed access, said Hay.

``Our goal is to make it affordable.''

Shirley Hay said she sees the new service as an economic-development opportunity for her people and as a chance for young people on the reserve to stay at home while pursuing careers in technology.

``It's going to open so many doors. We're all very excited.''

For an elder such as Thompson, the most important thing is the pride she feels about Hay's success.

``There are so many negative stories about First Nations people, so it's wonderful to have something positive like this happening in our community,'' she said.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

May 7, 2005. 01:00 AM
Future of Radio Shack store name in dispute in Canada
U.S. retailers duke it out over legal right to use name

Name-use ban doesn't free up rights: InterTan


The future of the Radio Shack name in Canada and a third of the retailers that bear it is up in the air as two U.S. consumer electronics giants battle it out for a stake in the Canadian marketplace.

InterTan Inc. of Barrie shot the latest volley yesterday saying it has the exclusive right to the Radio Shack name in Canada until 2009 even though a Texas court ruled in March that InterTan can no longer use it.

The court gave InterTan until June 30 to stop using the Radio Shack name on its more than 900 stores across Canada. InterTan responded by announcing the stores would change their name to The Source by Circuit City. No sooner had InterTan abandoned the name than its former parent company, RadioShack Corp., of Fort Worth, Tex., announced it planned to open its own chain of Canadian stores under the Radio Shack banner. Radio Shack is two words on Canadian while the U.S. company and its stores spell it one word. RadioShack Corp. said it would open the first 20 to 30 corporate owned stores before the end of this year, most in the Greater Toronto Area.

Yesterday, InterTan said Radio-Shack U.S. can't do that. Even though InterTan can't use the RadioShack name after June 30, InterTan said neither can any one else until its licensing agreement with RadioShack Corp. expires in 2009.

RadioShack in the United States disagrees.

InterTan said it plans to defend its right in court, though a specific strategy has yet to be worked out.

In the meantime, RadioShack Corp. has begun courting the 360 independent retailers that use the RadioShack name under contract with InterTan hoping to persuade them to switch allegiances so they can keep the well-known name over the stores. The stores, mainly in smaller markets, would be in addition to the corporate owned stores in the larger centres, RadioShack Corp. said.

InterTan is fighting back by vowing to double its advertising budget this year to raise awareness of the Circuit City name. It opened the first of the renamed stores in downtown Toronto's Eaton Centre two weeks ago to showcase the new design and format. The stores will carry more digital products and benefit from Circuit City's greater buying power, Levy noted.

The cross-border dispute began after Circuit City Corp., America's second largest consumer electronics chain, gained a foothold in Canada last year through the purchase of InterTan. InterTan used to be owned by RadioShack Corp., America's third-largest chain, and still had a licensing agreement with the company giving it the right to use the name in Canada.
May 7, 2005. 01:00 AM
A late rebate? Here's how to get results


You have a problem with a name-brand consumer product. Your attempts to contact the manufacturer get nowhere.

Here's our advice: Put pressure on the retailer. Make your relationship work in your favour.

"Escalate it to us and we can help you," says Pete Gibel, vice-president of merchandising with Staples Business Depot, which has 240 big-box stores in Canada.

"We do have some pull with suppliers."

He was talking about mail-in rebates, a topic that has occupied us for several weeks. Readers have complained about waiting for promised discounts that never arrive — or being told to submit ever more paperwork.

Staples has taken steps to improve customers' access to manufacturers' rebate offers. We'll get to that in a moment.

But first, here's the story of Sharon Smith. She contacted us after waiting more than a year for a refund on a product that couldn't be repaired.

Once we sent her complaint to Staples' head office in Mississauga, she got her money right away — and compensation for her inconvenience.

Smith had purchased a computer printer in December 2002 at Staples in Peterborough. She also paid for an extended warranty.

When the printer broke a year later, she was told by Staples to ship it at her own expense to an independent warranty company in Quebec.

On Jan. 12, 2004, she was told the printer was permanently damaged and she would be getting a cheque for $125 shortly.

"We've been calling every six weeks or so to see where our payment is," she told us.

"This has now been 15 months of calls and we still haven't received the cheque we were promised."

Smith was under the impression she was calling the manufacturer. But the 1-800 number she gave us was for the warranty company (which didn't identify itself, except when asked).

Why didn't she call the retailer?

"Staples claimed they were not responsible for the extended warranty," she says, even though Staples' name was printed on her policy.

Gibel responded to Smith's problem in a few hours.

He apologized for the grief she'd gone through with the warranty company and said she'd get a full $149 refund, plus a $100 gift card.

Staples now handles its own extended warranties instead of dealing with an outside supplier.

"We want to control things," he said.

Smith plans to make a donation to the Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund, which sends low-income children to camp.

"I can't thank you enough for being able to end this stress," she told us. "We've been excellent customers of Staples for several years and will continue to be because of their prompt attention when learning of this situation."

Retailers, such as Staples or Best Buy Canada, are caught in the middle when manufacturers or warranty companies mistreat customers. They don't want to lose a client, so they may cut a cheque first and deal with the supplier later.

Last week, we reported that Best Buy Canada (which also operates the Future Shop chain) will phase out mail-in rebates within the next two years.

This was done because of a groundswell of customer frustration with cheques that take too long to arrive or go astray.

Interestingly, mail-in rebates are often outsourced to independent companies. This often leads to confusion (as in Smith's case) about whom customers are dealing with. In 2002, Staples forced all its suppliers that offered rebates to go through the same company.

"It's still a third-party broker, but at least they listen to us," Gibel says.

A year ago, Staples started printing rebate forms on customers' receipts. This meant less paperwork to fill out and less chance of error.

In the latest innovation, called Easy Rebate, customers can submit a transaction number to Staples at its website.

"We'll wait till the return period is over and get a cheque out within about four weeks," Gibel says, adding that rebates often took 16 weeks to arrive before.

Customers without access to computers can send a transaction number in the mail to expedite their refunds.

Staples has about 100 rebate offers going at a time, mostly related to computer software and hardware. More than 50 per cent of customers redeem rebates of $50 or more — but fewer than 5 per cent bother with offers worth $5 or less, Gibel says.

If you're waiting endlessly for a cheque, he adds, call the store manager or the customer service line at 1-866-STAPLES.

In the long run, rebates will disappear. "Customers don't like them and retailers don't like them. The customer's going to win on this one."