Cell Network Overcomes Numerous Hurtles

Global mobility now a reality

Cell network overcomes numerous hurdles

A massive undertaking by Dryden’s own telephone company is beginning to bear fruit, despite a number of setbacks.

In 2007, when management of DMTS (Dryden Municipal Telephone System) took a hard look at their cell phone service and projections for the future, one thing was very clear – they needed to make serious changes in order to offer customers what the rest of the world was already enjoying.

“Cell phone users wanted texting and far better coverage, both within the local area and beyond,” says DMTS general manager Peter Gillis. “That was going to call for massive changes.”

At the time, the region operated on a CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) system, considered globally outdated because GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) networks support approximately four times more subscribers worldwide. To easily communicate with phones throughout the world and have all of the associated benefits, Northern Ontario would require a GSM network, which is precisely what DMTS set out to build.

Throughout 2008, as they worked to obtain the appropriate licensing and expertise to build the new network, much of rural Canada lagged seriously behind the rest of the world, including most of Latin America and the Caribbean, which has had extensive GSM coverage for years. This made the local telephone company pioneers of sorts when it came to opening up communication within Northern Ontario.

“Think of this in terms of switching from AM to FM radio,” offers Gillis when asked to exemplify the significance of the project.

In January, 2009, DMTS received approval by Industry Canada to operate a GSM network throughout a very large portion of Northern Ontario – essentially everything that was covered by a major or secondary highway.

What made this even more significant was that this plan to provide local subscribers and all roaming travelers with national and North American coverage would be carried out and operated by DMTS alone – with the future benefits going straight back into the pockets of subscribers as part of their city’s revenues.

An agreement was put in place to carry the traffic of the Rogers Network, a national carrier with more than half the active cell phones in Canada, and for that carrier to support DMTS customers on their network, but the new ‘voice of the north’ would be the responsibility of the local company from conception through construction and operation. In fact, until the DMTS towers were operating, existing Rogers customers would struggle with no cell service as they traveled through Northern Ontario. This was soon to change though, as existing towers were refitted with GSM technology and new towers were erected to carry signals further and stronger.

This massive project would come with a hefty price tag and be met by a number of unexpected hurdles, explains Gillis.

“By the time equipment purchases were complete in May of 2009, the fluctuating dollar had driven the tower price higher,” he says. “Also, by the time the physical work began, Industry Canada had introduced mandatory tower sharing rules, resulting in changes to how tenants were allowed to access towers in order to attach the equipment needed to switch to GSM. According to the new rules, we must use existing towers, only building our own when every other option is exhausted.”

Even though the skilled labour to do the work was available locally, third party contractors now had to be hired for the work on existing sites. This was a huge drawback because of a high demand for GSM in this country, meaning the cost and availability of contractors complicated the progress.

Still, despite the hurdles, DMTS has made the switch to GSM in one year, training scores of employees, increasing the number of towers on their network from three to 40, and switching over all but a few hundred of their customers, complete with new phones.

“We have the time to get those last few subscribers through the process before our old network shuts down altogether,” says Gillis, as he apologizes to those who have waited in long lines and endured coverage problems while new towers are activated every week. “This has really been a team effort.”

By the end of 2009, the City of Dryden will have uninterrupted GSM coverage from each city limit inward. Also scheduled for completion during this timeframe and into the first quarter of 2010 are Sioux Lookout, Red Lake, and Hwy 17 as well as Hwy 71 to Fort Frances and Hwy 11 on to Atikokan.

Within three years, Gillis projects the number of towers will be 100 and coverage will extend from Kenora, east to Hearst and south to Sault. Ste. Marie.

“By the time we’re finished this, we’ll have other areas of rural Canada coming to us for guidance in improving their mobile communications coverage,” he adds.