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A federal regulator has stalled Northwestel’s request to have internet overage fees waived amid increased usage brought on by COVID-19.

Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) told Northwestel in a letter Thursday that it would have to resubmit its application. That’s because the company made its request conditional on getting a subsidy that the regulator wasn’t ready to grant.

CRTC told Northwestel to take one request at a time and come back “without preconditions, so that the Commission may give this important initiative its immediate consideration.”

Now the company is rejigging its request to be more amenable, said Andrew Anderson, a Northwestel spokesperson, in a statement Thursday.

“As we normally do, we included information relevant to the cost of providing additional service in Northern high-cost service areas,” Anderson said.  “We have received a letter in response from the CRTC and are now developing an adjusted plan to provide relief for northern customers.

“We will seek to file a revised application immediately.”

In its original application, Northwestel wanted the regulator to freeze in place its local service subsidy aimed at expensive northern markets. CRTC, however, planned to phase out that subsidy from 2019 to 2021, according to a 2018 document from the regulator. This was to spur a pivot toward broadband.

But Northwestel argued the subsidy is still necessary.

“(The regulator) previously acknowledged that Northwestel’s residential DSL Internet rates are significantly below its costs,” the company stated in a news release Monday.

Northwestel wanted to keep the subsidy “at 2019 levels to ensure adequate funding for northern telecommunications in this critical period.”

In its application, Northwestel wanted it to be funded through the National Contribution Fund, a pot of money comprising contributions from telecoms who make more than $20 million in yearly revenue.

This led the regulator to send Northwestel back to its base request of waiving overage fees — a step widely applied by other major Canadian telecoms, it noted.

Unlimited Data Option

Northwestel also wanted to introduce an unlimited data option for certain residential internet customers as of May. That would be to accommodate customers in need of unlimited internet after the period of waived overage fees expired at the end of April.

(The regulator has to approve all the telecom’s packages and rates.)

These aren’t the only measures Northwestel has put forward. The telecom has also aimed to increase capacity for higher usage as residents stay home amid the pandemic.

“In the remaining satellite-served communities, where it is not technologically possible to quickly increase capacity, Northwestel has proposed temporarily doubling internet usage caps,” the telecom stated on Monday.

Those communities are Colville Lake, Gameti, Lutsel K’e, Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour, Samba K’e, Ulukhaktok and Wekweeti.

Moving forward, Northwestel has promised to immediately begin its reapplication.

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Nick Pearce

Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...

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