SaskTel will spend $121 million this year to improve its provincial network by expanding its high-speed Internet access offering to rural areas.

“”What we see is that we have high-speed Internet to communities of greater than 400 today,”” said

Kym Wittal, chief technology officer for Regina-based SaskTel. “”And we’re driving that, hopefully, further down to communities of potentially 200 or 100. And we just believe that’s unprecedented in Canada and certainly North America.””

Larger cities like Toronto, Hamilton, Ont. and San Jose, Calif. are not “”ubiquitously covered with high-speed,”” he explained. At the moment, SaskTel is serving small communities with populations of 100 to 200 people, such as Cando and Christopher Lake, and ones like Marengo with fewer than 100 residents.

Wittal predicted it will take three years to link high-speed access to centres of 200 or more people. SaskTel is exploring the viability of a fixed wireless technology to help it reach 95 per cent of the population.

At the end of 2003, more than 74 per cent of Saskatchewan residents in 237 communities had access to high-speed connections.

“”Without question, SaskTel has been at the forefront of pushing high-speed and pushing technology out to the rural areas,”” said Elroy Jopling, principal analyst at Gartner Group Canada in Toronto. Jopling said he could not specifically confirm how SaskTel stacks up in this regard against other cities.

Another plan is to improve coverage of the province’s digital cellular network. By the end of the year, SaskTel Mobility will have invested more than $90 million in its digital network, and will offer digital cellular service and 1xRTT functionality to 94 per cent of the province.

In so doing, it will provide coverage where there is none and improve service quality in areas where digital signals are weak, said Wittal.

Although every carrier from Bell Canada to Telus is filling out its network, Saskatchewan is pushing its own into areas with small populations, Jopling said. “”You just don’t know if you’re ever going to make money at that.””

Since the implosion of competitive local exchange carriers, most carriers have been risk-averse, making SaskTel a stand-out, he noted.

SaskTel also aims to enhance VoIP systems and improve its interactive services by launching a new browser for its set-top box, adding channels and expanding its video-on-demand offerings. Its high-speed Internet network allows customers to watch TV and movies, browse the Internet, send and receive e-mail and shop or pay bills online.

Looking at SaskTel’s complete plan, the company seems to be spending its money wisely and erasing the digital divide, Jopling said.

Since 1987, the telecom has poured more than $2.3 billion into the province’s telecommunications infrastructure.



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