Northern Manitoba lodge connects to the world using VoIP over satellite

North Knife Lake Lodge is about 200 kilometres north of Thompson, Man. It’s there because of the northern pike and lake trout. It’s certainly not there because of readily available telephone and Internet connections — communications options are a good deal less plentiful than fish in northern Manitoba.

When Toni Morberg’s parents started Webber’s Lodges 30 years ago, there was no way of talking to the outside world from the remote sites. More recently, explains Morberg — a partner in the business who handles marketing and business development from an office in Thompson — the company equipped its three lodges with conventional satellite telephones.

But Morberg says the satellite phones are not very reliable — sometimes it can be difficult to get dial tone — and they are costly. When North Knife Lake Lodge first started using a satellite phone, calls cost $10 per minute. More recently the price fell to about a dollar a minute — still at least 10 times the rates available on long-distance plans in most of the country.

“”It was a good four times as expensive as what we have now,”” Morberg says.

What North Knife Lake Lodge has now may be the future of satellite telephony. It combines voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) with a two-way satellite Internet connection. The package is put together by Galaxy Broadband Communications of Toronto, which offers satellite Internet services in remote locations. Galaxy is working with Vonage Canada to add VoIP to its service.

Galaxy Broadband president Rick Hodgkinson says his company tried out about 10 VoIP providers in the last couple of years before choosing Vonage as “”the one that works the best.”” The companies announced a partnership in December, but North Knife Lake Lodge has used the combined service since last June, Morberg says.

Galaxy’s service ranges in price from about $80 to about $800 per month. The package North Knife Lake Lodge uses is $150 per month, Hodgkinson says. The initial cost of equipment is between $900 and $1,600. Vonage offers business packages for $55 to $70 per month.

The lodge needs the phone to order supplies and arrange the flights that bring guests and supplies to the lake about three times a week. “”You can’t just run to the store for anything, so if you have an equipment breakdown or anything, you need to be able to communicate with someone to make sure the equipment is on the next plane,”” Morberg says.

The Internet connection is handy for ordering goods as well. It also allows guests to check e-mail and use the Web — as in the case last summer when Morberg went online to settle a bet among guests about the outcome of a boxing match in 1927. And having reliable telephone and Internet connections means Morberg can now spend a couple of months of the year at the lodge, where her husband is based.

Morberg says the connection is reliable, which she points out is an accomplishment given the lodge’s reliance on a combination of solar and generator power. As is typical of satellite phones, there is a delay in voice transmission that takes some getting used to. People accustomed to satellite phones learn to deal with this, notes Jon Arnold, program leader for VoIP equipment at research firm Frost & Sullivan in Toronto.

Running VoIP on a satellite connection requites no special tricks, says Darrin Lamont, vice-president of sales and customer operations at Vonage Canada. Vonage’s system sees the satellite link like any other broadband connection.

Because of lower cost and the simplicity of a single connection, VoIP could well be the satellite phone technology of the future.

“”The economics of VoIP are just so much better,”” Arnold says.

“”I believe that because satellite communication is such a great application for VoIP, that certainly there will be a lot of substitution,”” Lamont agrees. There are some limits, though: Today’s IP phones are not designed for mobile use where cellular coverage isn’t available. For VoIP providers, that niche might be the one that got away — but lodges, resorts, oil and gas exploration and other remote sites mean there are plenty of other fish in the sea.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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