Reliable cellular service could be coming to Highway 75 if Bell Canada’s proposed multibillion-dollar take-over of Manitoba Telephone Services goes ahead.
Speaking at the Morris Stampede and Exhibition grounds, Wade Oosterman, group president of BCE and Bell Canada, said the company promise to invest $1 billion in infrastructure over five years includes building three new cellular service sites along the highway, all linked by broadband fibre cables.
However, exactly how cellular coverage will be improved or introduced beyond major routes remains unclear.
“I expect that coverage will be enhanced in numerous places throughout the province. Specific details of that will be released at a later date, but certainly a billion dollars gets you a lot of expansion,” Oosterman said. “I think there will be a lot of benefits for Manitoba.”
Almost all municipalities in the province have some areas without cellular service and some municipalities, such as the Rural Municipality of Stuartburn, have no service at all.
Premier Brian Pallister was on hand for the announcement, but what the provincial government’s role will be in expanding rural service has yet to be defined. Describing himself as a “cheerleader” for the proposed plan, Pallister said the infrastructure expansion promised by Bell was simply what happens when “private sector businesses compete with one another.”
While the deal — if approved by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission and Competition Bureau — will reduce the number of cellular carriers in Manitoba from four to three, Pallister said competition isn’t always a numbers game.
“There were players in the past and there was less service, so the correlation I don’t think is an absolute one,” he said.
Some telecommunication watchers have raised concerns that reducing the number of competitors in the province will result in increased costs for consumers.
“In jurisdictions with less competition, such as Toronto, cellphone rates are almost double the cost as in Manitoba,” said Jim Maloway, opposition MLA for Elmwood. “That is not a good deal for the people of our province.”
Neither Pallister or Oosterman disputed the assertion that rates could rise as a result of the merger. Both men indicated that “you get what you pay for.”
“We’ve had cheaper limited service, now we get better service,” said the premier. “I would be not surprised if the prices went up somewhat because we have been paying the cheapest prices in, frankly, most of the country… but we haven’t been getting the service. So today’s announcement is about getting better, faster service.”
For those without any cellular service at all, the discussion about rates remains a theoretical one. Pallister said he recognizes that some rural and remote area may not have the population levels needed to make a business case for cellular development, but said that shouldn’t exclude them from service.
“I would make the case on the basis of public safety,” he said. “We need to continue to expand our access to cell coverage around the province… where economies of scale at the present time, in terms of residential or commercial numbers, may not make a compelling case.”
He added that ensuring total coverage could only be done in partnership with the federal government, but that dialogue between the two levels of government is ongoing.
Oosterman said that he believes it would be very rare to find an area of the province where a business case for providing cellular coverage could not be made.
“Because it’s not just the community that lives there, it’s the travellers who go through there, it’s the roamers who arrive there, it’s the business that takes place there, commercial activity is everywhere,” he said. “So, you know, we expand as quickly as we can and to as many places as we can and there is always justification at the end of the day.”
Chris Goertzen, president of the Association Manitoba Municipalities and mayor of Steinbach, said he was pleased with the news that cellular service would be improved along Highway 75.
“AMM has lobbied both the provincial and federal governments for some time to develop a plan for improving wireless communication and Internet service in the rural and northern parts of Manitoba; we have pushed for this,” said Goertzen, adding he has long argued that effective telecommunication services are essential to economic development.
“All of us share an equal interest in this announcement here today because cell service is so important to all our communities,” he added.