Friday, February 17, 2006

Bell gets cash to take Net to remote areas
Disabled to get better service
Small savings for all customers

TYLER HAMILTON
TECHNOLOGY REPORTER

The federal telephone watchdog is letting Bell Canada spend most of the $480 million it has paid into a government-created reserve fund to bring high-speed Internet access to communities in Ontario and Quebec that currently lack service.

At least $24 million of that amount must also go toward improving access to telecommunications services for the disabled, and another $81.5 million annually that would have been paid in future years will now translate into small rate reductions — averaging about $1 in savings a month — for all customers beginning June 1.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, as part of its landmark price-cap decision in 2002, made it mandatory for Bell and other regulated phone companies to pay into the so-called deferral account, which was intended to fund future initiatives that would benefit both consumers and the industry.

Four years later, the account has ballooned to $652.7 million, with Bell's contribution representing the lion's share. The regulator ruled yesterday that the funds would be best distributed in a way that expands broadband access to all Canadians — both those in communities with no service and to those individuals lacking access because of a disability.

The decision, said CRTC chairman Charles Dalfen, "is in the broadest interest of all consumers."

Lis Angus, executive vice-president at telecom consultancy Angus TeleManagement, said the ruling meshes with the government's social and economic goals.

"I think this is a good decision," said Angus. "It allows high-school kids to be educated where they live. It enables health-care advice to be supported remotely. People can run jobs from their communities without having to leave."

But not everyone from the 11-commissioner panel agreed. Commissioner Barbara Cram argued that all the money should be sent back to consumers in the form of a rebate, equating to roughly $80 for each Bell customer.

Bell was pleased with the ruling, but offered little detail on the company's broadband expansion plans.

"It's hard to comment on what our proposals will look like," said Mirko Bibic, chief of regulatory affairs at Bell. "But in terms of the concept, we feel the CRTC made the right choice."

Bibic did estimate customers would see a reduction of up to 75 cents relating to their monthly local phone service and another 30 cents on optional services, which include features such as call answer and call display.

All companies have until June 30 to propose to the regulator how they plan to use the funds.

But the ruling comes with some restrictions. At least 5 per cent of the funds available to each company must be spent on programs to improve telecom access for the disabled. Money must also be devoted to bringing broadband into communities where it doesn't or isn't likely to exist and are expensive to reach.

The CRTC also said funds must be used to develop both high-speed access services and "backbone" infrastructure, with the latter being available to all competitors "at a minimal rate." The "least-cost technology" should also be used, the regulator said.

Angus said digital subscriber line (DSL) technology could be used in some areas, but added there's an opportunity to use wireless technologies — based on broadband standards such as Wi-Max — as a lower-cost way of reaching remote areas.

Bell, for example, is a partner with Rogers Communications Inc. in the Inukshuk joint venture, which could become a way for both companies to expand their reach into areas where fibre-optic infrastructure and DSL are too costly to deploy.

"I don't think it's limited to DSL," said Bibic. "We will be permitted to propose any technology that delivers broadband to these communities."

The CRTC decided not to release any of the money to competitive service providers, such as Rogers and recently acquired Call-Net, arguing that those companies have already benefited from the deferral account in previous years.

Rogers declined comment.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

A new high for cottage country
Jan. 30, 2006. 07:54 AM
TYLER HAMILTON

"Everyone ... is envious when they learn that I have a high-speed satellite trial"

—Former Star Web editor

It may be the end of January but the unseasonably warm weather has probably got you thinking prematurely about cottage season.

And if, as a city dweller, you're hooked on broadband Internet for work and play, then satisfying the northern need for speed can be a challenge, given the lack of high-speed cable and digital subscriber line (DSL) infrastructure in cottage country.

Face it: Dial-up is no longer acceptable.

This column has been written before about a new broadband satellite service introduced last year, via Telesat Canada's Anik F2 satellite. Now it's time to look at how well the service actually works and whether it's as affordable as first promised.

Telesat kindly offered to let former Toronto Star Web editor Dean Reeds try out the service at his cottage up in Kinmount, a Kawartha Lakes community about two hours northeast of Toronto. Reeds is developing a second property up there, so he uses his cottage these days as both his main residence and home office.

Getting the service set up was probably the biggest hassle.

Reeds, who already subscribed to Bell ExpressVu satellite TV service, was a little disappointed he couldn't put the new satellite dish on the same mounting pole. That's because the TV and Internet services use separate satellites, which are positioned in their own orbital slots.

When they finally did find an appropriate place to mount the Internet dish, trees surrounding the area — this is cottage country, after all — blocked the line of sight. Reeds had to get permission to install the dish on his neighbour's property, but then the dish was too far from the cottage. To compensate, the installer used a higher quality cable to carry the signal back.

"The installer was exceptional in every regard — friendly, knowledgeable, professional, tidy, and very enthusiastic to get the signal in a tough place," says Reeds. "My gut feeling is that heavily treed lots will be a constant difficulty for installers."

Reeds got the basic service, which is pitched by reseller Barrett Xplore Inc. (http://www.xplornet.com) as "perfect for email and light surfing." It offers download speeds of up to 512 kilobits per second, or roughly 10 times faster than a dial-up modem. This is similar to "lite" cable and DSL packages.

Barrett calls this basic service the "KaZam" option, which costs $54.99 a month with a two-year contract. One step higher is "KaZoom," offering 1 megabit per second downloading for $89.99 a month. The "KaBang" and "KaBoom" options, priced at $134.99 and $179.99, respectively, are more ideal for power users with speeds ranging from 1.5 to 2 mbps.

Reeds has been happy with the basic KaZam option. "It destroys dial-up," he says. "The download speeds are consistently above 400 kbps, even in marginal weather, and even when satellite TV service is spotty." His previous dial-up service frequently lost its connection because of older phone lines in the area. The only outage he experienced with the satellite was during an ice storm, a much better record than his Bell ExpressVu service, he says.

Since installing the service, he's been able to edit his website in real time, use instant messaging, download the odd song, and make phone calls through the Internet using Skype. "When I use Skype the voice of the person I'm calling is very clear, but on the other end, they report that the quality of my voice isn't great, so I only use Skype for shorter conversations."

Uploading large documents or massive files is a different story. "Downloading is fine, but if I try to upload a whole bunch of images to my website, it's slow."

Even so, Reeds figures he saves $10 a month using Skype for long-distance calls and another $10 to $15 a month by sending fewer long-distance faxes, because images and large documents can now be sent as email attachments.

And as with all high-speed services, Reeds can be online 24 hours a day without fear of tying up the phone. This means he can have Internet weather reports on his computer screen at all times, is notified if his "buddies" log into their computers, and is alerted when new email arrives, allowing him to be more responsive to friends, family and business colleagues.

On top of that, he has networked two computers in his cottage — a Mac and a PC — through a home Wi-Fi wireless system. The router lets him take a laptop down to the dock where he can surf sites and enjoy his morning coffee. At some point he hopes to test out a cordless phone system that will let him use Skype almost anywhere on his property.

There are other benefits. As Reeds explains, "I can quickly use the Internet to check questionable Scrabble words, or to settle a dispute via Wikipedia, or look up various animal tracks that appear around the cottage after snowfall, or bird varieties after seeing a newcomer to the bird feeder."

He freely admits these are things that could be done with dial-up, but the hassle of connecting meant he rarely did.

Fact is, says Reeds, "everyone who lives up here full time is envious when they learn that I have a high-speed satellite trial," to the point where it has become a reference point for some real estate agents in the area.

"My next-door neighbours have their place for sale and I received a call from a potential buyer's agent inquiring about the satellite. They would only consider making an offer on the cottage if high-speed satellite was available to them."

When the trail ended, Reeds was decisive: he wanted to keep the system; he was willing to pay the $500 cost of the equipment.

Compared to cable and DSL services in the city, the service is still quite pricey. On top of the $500 equipment charge, customers typically pay a $99 installation fee and one-time $75 system access fee. But given the lack of alternatives, and the pent-up demand for broadband in the bush, many cottage owners — like Reeds — probably wouldn't blink. "In short the service is reliable and performs well," he concluded.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Air Canada loses check-in time fight
But airline, transportation agency urge travellers to still adhere to recommended check-in times
Feb. 3, 2006. 04:17 PM
KEVIN MCGRAN
TRANSPORTATION REPORTER

Air Canada is urging passengers to arrive for their flights as early as possible despite losing a Canadian Transportation Agency ruling this week that sided with two passengers who weren’t allowed to board their plane after arriving about 45 minutes before their departure time.

The agency this week ruled in favour of Craig McIntyre of Montreal and ordered Air Canada to pay $1,482.92. That’s the value of the tickets that McIntyre had to purchase from WestJet to return his sons to Edmonton because Air Canada refused to let them board because they hadn’t checked in an hour before their flight.

“It’s still important that people leave lots of time to get to the airport,” Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said today. “Traffic can be bad. Sometimes it’s hard to park. The airport can get congested if it’s busy. If you’re going overseas, you have Customs. It’s important people leave a lot of time so you’re not rushing.

“We can’t hold up planes, that would inconvenience all the other passengers.”

While Air Canada recommends that passengers arrive one hour before departure for in-Canada flights, the agency ruled that the only hard-and-fast rule is that passengers must be through security and in the departure lounge 25 minutes before their departure, something the agency ruled the McIntyres could have done.

The agency issued a statement today urging travellers to comply with check-in time “recommendations” after a newspaper report “left the impression that travellers do not have to respect air carriers’ check-in times. This is not the case,” the agency said.

“It is in the best interest of travellers to always verify with their carrier how long in advance of the flight time they must check in. Therefore, travellers should arrive at the airport with plenty of time to check in, clear security and reach the departure gate.”

McIntyre’s sons, Eric and Scott, were to travel on Air Canada’s Flight No. AC181 from Montreal to Edmonton on May 17, 2004. McIntyre said he dropped his sons at the airport at about 8:10 a.m. for the 8:55 a.m. flight.

McIntyre helped them inside the airport, leaving his vehicle unattended, then went back to park the car, producing as evidence his parking receipt marked for 8:24 a.m.

The McIntyres say Air Canada would not check the two boys in for the flight because they were too late in arriving at the check-in counter.

In a written statement, Scott and Eric state that the agent advised them that Air Canada did not check in passengers who arrived 30 minutes before a flight. The agent refused to reconsider her position when McIntyre’s sons pointed out that they still had 45 minutes before the flight was scheduled to depart.

Air Canada indicates that the recommended check-in time for flights within Canada is 60 minutes in advance of a flight and that failing to meet this requirement will result in the cancellation of a passenger’s reservation.

McIntyre argued that the tickets did not contain time limits for check-in and that when he showed the tickets to the Air Canada agents at the check-in counter, they agreed.

But McIntyre’s sons weren’t allowed to check in and had to buy new tickets from WestJet. “Air Canada did not present any concrete evidence in contradiction of Mr. McIntyre’s position,” the agency wrote in its decision.

“The agency is of the opinion that had Scott and Eric been allowed the opportunity to reach the boarding gate in sufficient time for the 25-minute cut-off, they may have been able to do so.”