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Gwaii Communications to go all-island

Gwaii Communications plans to buy the south-end QCIslands Net internet network by the end of March to become an all-island ISP.
Light beams from a test strand of the underground fibre-optic line that the islands' non-profit GwaiiTel Society had installed between Old Massett

Haida Gwaii Internet services are set for a shake-up.

Based in the north end, Gwaii Communications plans to buy QCIslands Net and the Misty Isles TV Society to become the islands’ only local provider of Internet and digital TV.

Gwaii Communications has agreed to buy out the south-end QCIslands Net by March 31, according to GwaiiTel, Haida Gwaii's non-profit telecom society.

“Our goal is to try and build a communications company that is island-wide,” said Joe Lavoie, speaking to Queen Charlotte council last week together with his brother Jeff.

“The only way to keep a viable, local provider on Haida Gwaii is to offer both TV and Internet services,” said the Lavoies.

“It all has to be under one roof, because the population just isn’t here,” said Jeff.

When Gwaii Communications took over the cable TV network run by the non-profit Masset Haida TV Society, the society was about a month from going bankrupt, said Joe.

Now, in the south end, the non-profit Misty Isles TV Society that offers cable TV to Queen Charlotte, Skidegate, and Sandspit is just barely paying its bills as customers move from the analog cable service to digital TV packages offered by Shaw and Bell.

Gwaii Communications is now in talks with Misty Isles, and if it does buy the network, it can convert it to digital cable to better compete with bigger, off-island players.

By purchasing QCIslands Net, Gwaii Communications would move away from QCI’s wireless Internet connections in the south-end, first by using the existing Misty Isles co-axial cable network.

“Co-ax would be a big improvement,” said Queen Charlotte Mayor Greg Martin.

“Many of us already have it going to our houses and aren’t using it.”

Haida Gwaii communities are linked by a very fast, fibre-optic mainline that GwaiiTel had installed last year.

But hooking up individual homes to that fibre-optic network is a pricey proposition.

With federal grant support, a new pricing agreement with GwaiiTel, and several stages of ‘last-mile’ connections, Gwaii Communications hopes to eventually build a fully fibre-optic network and offer unlimited data plans.

“Fibre is the ultimate,” said Jim Pazarena, owner of QCIslands Net.

“I’ve always had it as one of my mandates to provide the best internet to the islands. Well, the best internet would be fibre.”

While Pazarena has upgraded QCIslands’ wireless systems and could do so again by switching to the high-speed LTE technology used by cell-phone providers, in the long run, he said no technology has more capacity or speed than fibre-optics.

If all goes to plan, Gwaii Communications hopes to offer download speeds of up to 100 Mbps twice what Canada’s telecom regulator recently set as a desirable benchmark for high-speed internet.

Recently, Telus began selling competitive internet packages on Haida Gwaii using a Smart Hub an LTE-equipped device that basically works like a cell phone hotspot.

For anyone living where there is a strong cell-phone signal, Pazarena said Telus’ 250- and 500-gigabyte per month packages are tough for local internet service providers to compete with right now.

“I think the pricing of the Telus Smart Hub will force Gwaii Tel to be more reasonable in their pricing for the local ISPs,” he said.

Satellite internet providers such as Xplornet also have customers on Haida Gwaii, mainly in places where local Internet can’t reach yet. The company launched a new satellite in December, and plans to launch a second one soon to offer higher speeds.

Looking longer-term, Pazarena believes a local, fibre-optic based service is the islands’ best bet, not only for speed, but also for service to underserved areas.

Gwaii Communications is now applying for federal and provincial grants that will cut the cost of making so-called ‘last-mile’ Internet connections to the fibre-optic main line, particularly for households in spread-out places such as Tlell.

“We’re trying to bring that household cost down to a minimum,” said Jeff Lavoie, speaking before Queen Charlotte councillors voted in support of the company’s grant proposal.

“If we have to ask $300 or $400 per household, that’s not the end of the world. But $3,000 or $9,000 per lot is.”