With many Eeyou Istchee residents complaining on social media about issues with internet service, the Nation invited Eeyou Communications Network (ECN) President Alfred Loon to answer questions about why customers may be facing problems.
Customers complained about waiting weeks for installation, being charged while they hadn’t been correctly connected, that their service cut out or was intermittently slow, and about being unable to access tech support.
According to Loon, two of the major reasons for service interruptions are from power outages as well as breaks in the fibre-optic line.
“The southern part of the network is all on poles, and sometimes the line crosses over a road,” Loon explained. “The most common thing is when those heavy dump trucks don’t put their buckets down and catch the cables. Sometimes they don’t know they cut the cables until someone tells them.”
If the fibre is broken repeatedly in one place, the company works to find alternatives including burying the fibre under the road.
As for speed variations, Loon said that the company relies predominately on wireless connections in residences, where the distance between an individual and their router can vary.
“I’ve had this kind of problem, my router is in the basement and I’m on the second floor and so I had to get a booster,” Loon noted.
ECN is trying to provide better bandwidth by wiring new houses with CAT-5 ethernet cables so that customers can simply plug in their devices anywhere they want. However, older houses must rely on wi-fi.
Loon says the internet works like a series of highways and smaller roadways – with the main network arteries shared by all Eeyou residents and the rest of the world, and a customer’s individual internet package being shared by all the users and devices in a home.
“If you want a 25 [megabit per second] package with Netflix and lots of devices running, you’ll experience some slowdown. We have sometimes heavy congestion on the network itself,” Loon said
The average Canadian downloads 340 gigabytes per month, he said, while the average Eeyou Istchee resident downloads over 1,000 GB.
ECN has two types of customers, Loon pointed out. Institutional customers, like health, educational and band council offices, have direct fibre optic connections. Their residential customers, however, receive their internet through Distributel, which also offers television and landline telephone service. (ECN is also a partner behind Eeyou Mobility.)
Currently, ECN has an exclusivity contract with Distributel, but Loon revealed that the company’s board of directors recently decided to move the company towards an open-access network by 2023, which would allow them to provide internet, television and telephone service from any other major retailer, like Vidéotron or Bell Canada.
“There will be a bit more competition, so people can choose,” Loon said, adding that it could lead to lower prices. “Even though the residents are not our direct customers we want to make sure everyone is connected no matter the provider and gets good service.”
As for delays, Loon said that generally the biggest issue is that newer housing developments in each community aren’t necessarily connected to the fibre-optic network. ECN has asked band councils to inform them when building new developments so they can install fibre-optic infrastructure at the same time.
Obtaining the proper permits to install fibre cables across Hydro-Québec’s poles is also a problem. This process is time-consuming, as a permit is required for every pole, which then must be inspected for things like corrosion.
The pandemic also affected operations. ECN added many connections after schools moved online, causing a surge in demand for service. Loon noted as well that delays in installations come if customers aren’t home when technicians arrive; an adult must be always present.
Regarding technical support, Loon explained that residential customers need to contact Distributel. When call centres experience high volumes, calls are routed to an overflow call centre located anywhere in the world. Customers in Eeyou Istchee have had their calls forwarded to call centres in Egypt and complained about language barriers as a result. Still, Loon said Distributel is supposed to prioritize calls from Eeyou Istchee to avoid rerouting.
Loon added that ECN will soon announce fibre service in Whapmagoostui, the last community without that service.
“We’re pretty excited about that,” Loon said. “The fibre is being built; everything is being connected. They’re going to let me know when they light up the wire.”
by Ben Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter