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Cellphone race reaches Hall Beach as competitors hustle to launch services across Nunavut

Technicians for competitors SSi Micro and Bell are quickly installing equipment in communities across Nunavut to introduce cellphone voice and data service.

This illustrates some of the equipment that goes into high-tech "communications shelters" contained in seacans that SSi Micro is installing in communities across Nunavut to make cellphone voice and data services available.
image courtesy of SSi Micro

SSi Micro activated cellphones in Hall Beach last week, making it the latest community to join the ranks.

"It's the first time we can use cellphones here in Hall Beach. The service just started this morning," Mayor Jaypeetee Audlakiak said on Feb. 22. "I know a lot of (residents) have been asking for it."

Chesterfield Inlet and Clyde River were the first two communities where SSi Micro launched cellphone voice and data offerings as of Feb. 1.

"The response has been beyond positive. In terms of sign-ups, it's been really strong," Dean Proctor, chief development officer with SSi Micro, said of the first three weeks of customer demand in those two communities.

In Kugaaruk, senior administrative officer John Ivey said Bell and partner Northwestel will have a communications tower delivered by sealift this summer. Bell cellphone service should be in place in Kugaaruk by October or November if all goes smoothly, Ivey said.

"They (residents) have been asking for it," he said.

SSi Micro – which received $35 million in federal funding and is investing $40 million of its own towards the technological upgrading project – is aiming to make cellphone service a reality in every Nunavut community by this summer, Proctor said. He declined to disclose the schedule for each community.

Between its own satellite dish network "backbone" – which is why Qiniq, Inuktitut for "backbone" was adopted for SSi Micro's Nunavut brand – and the recently signed deal with Telesat Canada for satellite service, SSi Micro isn't reliant on Bell/Northwestel's infrastructure.

Bell/Northwestel, working with $50 million from Ottawa, would only provide the following statement through Jacqueline Michelis, a Bell media relations employee: "Bell will be the first wireless provider to offer LTE wireless service to 25 communities in Nunavut starting later this year. The roll out of service will be completed in 2019."

Proctor said being the first company to launch cellular service in each community doesn't necessarily lead to the upper hand.

"We're not going to be first in whatever communities (Bell/Northwestel) are in now, but that doesn't mean we're not going there," he said. "The only way that being first to a market is an advantage is to lock people up (in a long-term contract)... I can tell you that if you lock people up and you aren't offering the best service or the best value, you're going to have pretty mad people. This whole idea of somebody being a slave to a (service) provider, I mean that's hopefully been put to the wayside. This is exactly why we're doing competitive battles is to prevent a monopoly relationship."

The company's cellphone service will eliminate long-distance charges between communities.

SSi Micro is offering calling and data plans that will range between $25 and $140 a month – with no contracts – and a "pay as you go" option.

The range of cellphone use on the land will vary, Proctor noted. The height of the cellular towers, local terrain and water bodies all affect the distance that a signal can travel outside the community, he said.