Mayor Glenn Witherspoon said the town was “off to the races” after council agreed to sign the cellular phone service operating agreement between itself, Atikokan, and Thunder Bay.
Doug McCaig, chair of the Fort Frances PUC and a member of Northwest Mobility, was joined by Geoff Gillon of the Rainy River Future Development Corp. as council looked over the operating agreement.
McCaig noted the document had gone through nine drafts before all three parties.
“There’s been a lot of caveats, a lot of problems, a lot of things to overcome,” he said. “It has taken a lot of time from a lot of people but the project is finally going ahead.”
McCaig said the tower in Fort Frances should be ready by tomorrow. Then crews will move on to the ones in Finland, Barwick, and Rainy River.
He noted there was a slight delay with the tower in Rainy River due to a land ownership problem with CN.
The issue has been resolved, McCaig said, though adding it may take a little longer to get the system up and running around Rainy River. But this shouldn’t affect Morson’s coverage, which McCaig said would be covered mostly by the tower near Nestor Falls.
“I think what’s going to happen is there will be an announcement [of the coverage area] at the kick-off, and it will probably service the whole west end,” he remarked.
The other towers in Northwest Mobility’s system will be located at Gagné, Calm Lake, Atikokan, Quetico, Kashabowie, and Shebandowan. Atikokan is scheduled to go on-line early in the New Year, and it is hoped coverage east of Fort Frances can be extended to Mine Centre at about the same time.
By the end of next year, it is hoped continuous cellular coverage can be provided from Thunder Bay all the way to Rainy River.
Although expenses are expected to exceed the company’s operating costs for the first two years, it isn’t by much. And by the third year, it’s expected the town will start receiving its investment back from the cell phone company and be paid in full at the end of year eight.
“We wanted conservative estimates,” McCaig told council. “I have noticed some of the figures have been inflated a little bit since the onset of the project but I don’t think it’s anything to be concerned about.”
“We have to be cognizant of the fact that when we worked with Thunder Bay and Atikokan, the main goal was to ensure our own debenture is paid back over the course of the project,” Gillon noted.
“We’ve tried to make sure it works [and] it appears there is a demand out there,” he added.
About one-third of the cellular phone company’s ownership structure will belong to Fort Frances, which invested $1 million into the project. Atikokan, which put up $500,000, will get one-sixth of the ownership, with 50 percent going to Thunder Bay Telephone (the city’s phone utility).
The remaining $1.75 million for the project comes from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp.
Thunder Bay Telephone will have the managerial rights to the system, McCaig noted, since they’re the only ones that have the infrastructure and manpower in place to do it.
An advisory committee also will be set up to guide Northwest Mobility’s management , with Fort Frances getting two voting members, Atikokan one, and Thunder Bay Telephone four.
“Any financial arrangements have to be approved by the board by two-thirds,” McCaig stressed, noting Thunder Bay Telephone could not run the utility carte blanche.
Once the cell phone project is up and running, McCaig said the local PUC will turn its attention to other matters, such as establishing fibre optic service in the town and beyond, and making more partnerships in the district to improve telecommunications.
“The cellular phone system is a prelude to something much greater,” he pledged.