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ONTC, council hopeful that Ontera deal will not go through

Wednesday, April 16, 2014   by: Jamie Lyle

This week, North Bay City Council put forward a motion, disagreeing with the sale of Ontera's telecommunications division to Bell Aliant, which will test the ears of provincial politicians to the concerns of Northern communities.

Members of the ONTC donned red shirts in support of their protest against the sale and to what they see as the dismantling of the Ontario Northlands development and infrastructure in Northern Ontario.

Councillor Mac Bain seconded Deputy Mayor Tanya Vrebosch's motion, one that points to specific concerns regarding major implications for the Northern economy, including employment, revenues and service levels.

Other concerns are that a virtual monopoly might possibly create a cost structure that would make an already expensive internet and communication system in Northern Ontario even more pricy, as well as hamper future economic development, making the region seem less attractive to employers, who most now rely heavily on high tech communication systems.

With Bell Aliant taking on the service, many job losses could be seen within the city, in addition to Northerners having less control over fibre optic access, should there be a sale.

The province does have an initiative to provide high quality communication services to smaller communities in the North, which is subsidies, however, in the past, it had stipulated that it wanted to maintain competition in markets that did not have more than one provider.

The piece of the Ontera division is also seen by many as a continued fracturing of the Ontario Northland service divisions, which have recently seen cutbacks in their rail and transportation systems.

The ONTC has filed a grievance order, hoping to renegotiate or stop the sale within a short window of ninety days before the contract of sale takes effect which, oddly enough, has been presented with no details.

It was pointed out during the presentation that, by allowing Bell Aliant to have all the fibre networks in the region, it could possibly cause security concerns from a hacking point of view, as well as create disruptions in labour, with the end outcome meaning higher costs for service and less competition.

What is mentioned in council's motion is the low dollar figure sticker price for the extensive fibre optic cables, in addition to the amount of money that the taxpayers have invested over the years into building the system.

CAW representative Brian Kelly says that on the whole, it's a bad deal for the taxpayers and will impact jobs in the province in a negative way.

“That doesn't smell too well, over and above the damage it does to the Ontario economy, to the communities and to the people who work at Ontera,” says Kelly.

Kelly was hopeful that the deal was not over, citing some hurdles with the sale of the Ontera division, which still has to be sorted out with regards to political and legal issues, as well as having the CRTC sign off on the deal.

Kelly cites the cancellation of the Ontario Northlander and now the sale of Ontera as being just another step by the provincial government to sell off the ONTC's most viable assets in order to bring eventual ruin to the entire crown corporation.

“Most corporations, they get rid of the worst child, not the best child,” Kelly says, adding that “we really think that it's just a long term strategy by the bureaucrats specially, to tear away at the fabric of the ONTC.”

Deputy Mayor Tanya Vrebosch says that the deal has no guarantees that smaller Northern Ontario communities will continue to receive services such as basic phone connections should the 2200 kms of the fibre optic network changes hands.

She says that it seems from the negotiations that Bell Aliant, a subsidiary of Bell which is based in Halifax, doesn't want the actual company and are simply interested in the hard asset of the fibre network that they can assume into their already massive structure, essentially eliminating the local personnel and business aspects of the current operation.

“I think if we take the fibre off the table, then I think that the deal will not go through,” Vrebosch says.

The Ontera sale is reported at a $6 million figure, however, many value the asset at closer to $15 million, which would make it seem that the taxpayer is giving away $9 million to an already profitable company, developing a monopoly with the help of investment by Northern taxpayers.

However, with a lack of details assumed in the deal being relatively unknown, it is difficult to tie any numbers accurately to the value and final sale price.

In addition to saying no to the sale of Ontera, Council added an amendment into the motion requesting that the province surrender the details surrounding the transaction so that they and the affected parties can better gauge the impact of the deal if it is to go forward in its current state.

“They've destroyed our transportation system in the North and now they're destroying the telecommunication's system,” says Vresbosch.

“How are the people of the North going to be taken care of,” she asks.

Saying that the biggest impact in North bay will be the loss of jobs, Vrebosch pointed out that health care and hydro are just two of the infrastructure components that rely heavily on this cable network and could be forced to incur higher costs as Bell Aliant's monopoly will have no pressure in the marketplace to maintain service and low cost fibre optics for communications, entertainment and all things internet related.

“So there's still a lot of questions that need to be answered,” she says.

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