Quebec firefighters combat rising telecom costs

They say talk is cheap. And it is, or at least cheaper than it was for the members of Quebec’s Société de Protection des forêts contre le feu  (SOPFEU), located north of Lac St-Jean.

The non-profit

company, which protects about 40 per cent of the province against forest fires, recently moved to voice over IP to communicate with the base office in Roberval, some 400 km to the south.

Before the switch, the organization was using satellite phones, which left the organization with bills of several thousand dollars during busy fire seasons, said Claude Boisvin, chief aerial operations officer for SOPFEU.

According to Boisvin, the company was paying anywhere from $1 to $2.60 a minute to communicate with the base about matters ranging from administrative and human resource issues to fire management issues.

Now, with a voice over IP service from Montreal-based, a cross-Canada Web services provider, SOPFEU pays a base rate of about $130 a month plus about four cents a minute on its calls to the south.

“Two years ago we built an airport in the north and we have people there all summer,” said Boisvin, who is based in Roberval. “The only communications we have with them is the IP phone and they have a satellite dish for the Internet.”

There are about 80 professional firefighters and a handful of administrative staff stationed in the north, he added.

But the service isn’t without its hiccups. 

“Probably the biggest problem is more of an inconvenience,” he said, explaining that the performance of the IP phones depends on the speed of the Internet service via satellite.

“At first we had delays of five or six seconds,” he says. “You have to do as if you were on the radio when you talk and then you say, ‘over,’ and a few seconds later the other one starts, but we took a new package that is much faster and now we have around two seconds of delay. That’s not that high, but when you talk you still have to be very meticulous — two people can’t talk at the same time, because the sound takes longer to come back and the delay is bigger, but if you do it right you should have a delay of around two seconds.”

But Boisvin can live with that. 

“We would prefer having no delay, but we prefer a small delay (to having no communication).”

SOPFEU went with because it was recommended by the satellite Internet service provider.

He said he also likes the fact the company is able to access the service using the phones they already had. Some voice over IP providers require users to install special handsets.

It’s that simplicity that will drive the adoption of VoIP, said president Sophie Leger. 

“We believe it has to be very, very simple, so we send you only a gateway, so whatever others decide, we’re going with something easy,” she said.

According to Leger, the lag SOPFEU users experience is related to being in a remote location and connecting via satellite. Leger said the recent launch of an upgraded satellite will reduce or eliminate the problem.

“Delays can sometimes happen depending on the connectivity, especially if it’s used on remote access like this via satellite,” she said. “If you use the service from home over a regular DSL service or cable, there’s no lag.”

Since launching the service last November, Leger said, demand has increased exponentially. has about 40-50 customers using the service over satellite, and expects the biggest growth to come from small companies and organizations looking to save money on telecom costs.

“When we see organizations like the fire department using it, people will see if it’s good for them, it will be good for me,” she said. “It’s a question of people hearing about it and seeing the reliability.” is working on launching a wireless VoIP service by September.

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