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PUC looking to ring in cellular phone service


The Fort Frances and Atikokan Public Utilities Commissions are taking a closer look at offering cellular phone service from the Manitoba border to Thunder Bay.

At its regular meeting Monday, town council gave the PUC here the nod to draw up a business plan and conduct an engineering study, with both commissions to pick up the tab.

That move, the PUCs hope, will increase their chances for Ontario Heritage Fund dollars.

"At this particular time, the key partners will be Fort Frances, Atikokan, and a major telecommunications network," PUC chairman Doug McCaig told council, noting they couldn’t reveal the third partner at this time.

The big question is how much it would cost to get the service up and running--and how quickly any start-up costs could be paid off. That includes whether it can link up with an already existing tower, or if it will have to build its own.

That cost rings in at $200/ft, or some $600,000 per tower.

"We have to get hard figures that are rationalized, and we have to know exactly how much it is going to cost us," McCaig stressed, noting the PUC isn’t sure yet if it will be asking the town for capital dollars.

"The town would have to be a partner in some way, shape, or form," said Geoff Gillon, the town’s economic development advisor with the Rainy River Future Development Corp.

Once the engineering study and business plan are done, the PUC will go through each one with council to see if this is something to pursue.

"And then, of course, we will have to see how much money we will get from the Heritage Fund," McCaig added.

Mayor Glenn Witherspoon noted Heritage Fund reps recommended they continue to use the services of Vic Prokopchuk of Atikokan in the project.

"He is not only known nationally but internationally for his knowledge of telecommunications," he said.

Prokopchuk, though, already conducted a study for the service. He estimated it would pull in $177,000 in "roamer" fees, an average $80 monthly fee per customer, 290 people in its first year, and that the capital start-up debt could be paid off in three years.

While McCaig admitted this study might be little "optimistic," he also noted there were statistics that couldn’t be ignored--450,000 U.S. vehicles cross through the border here each year and 50 trucks a day pass through town.

"[And] we’re hearing there’s 600 cell phones in the Rainy River District right now," noted Gillon.

Those customers pay long-distance roamer fees because they’re hooked to a service out of Minnesota. If a service was available here, Gillon said they hoped those customers would migrate back.

"[But] all these things have to be defined," he stressed, noting they hoped to have the study and business plan completed in the next few months.

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