Have you ever seen an established area where a developer purchased the majority of old homes on small lots on a single street, razed them and built several apartment blocks, and smack dab in the middle of these buildings sat one lone small house?
That was the fellow who held out selling to the developer, thinking as the sole property owner left on street, the developer would have to pay him a gazillion dollars for his house in order to proceed with his project. In the end, that homeowner was left with a home boxed in the shadows of the apartment buildings with a property that was rendered virtually worthless. The lot was not big enough to build a stand-alone apartment building, nor was it an attractive sale as a single-dwelling home.
I can’t help but wonder if SaskTel, the last surviving provincially-owned telephone company in Canada, isn’t going to be like the little house caught in the middle of large apartment blocks and eventually be rendered nearly worthless. Listening recently to the telecom experts that have offered opinions on the future of this Crown corporation, SaskTel will have to spend billions of dollars on fibre optics and infrastructure to competitively service its customers.
Service costs will necessarily go up, which in turn will lead to its customers purchasing services from national/international competitors who will offer similar services at a lesser cost. And as much as we love our Crowns, we love our cheaper service costs more.
But the winds of change never quit blowing, although sometimes they are light breezes and other times maelstroms.
Some of you may remember the days of yore when SaskTel had a monopoly on telephone services in Saskatchewan. Those were the days when it took two or three weeks to get connect or disconnect service. You had to take a day off work and stay home waiting for the telephone guy to arrive, sometime between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. If the serviceman didn’t get there that day it was oops! maybe tomorrow.
You had to rent your phone from SaskTel and each extension cost a small fortune to install, usually with wires unattractively stapled to your baseboard, and a monthly fee was charged for each extension line. (Yes, it is true many people cheated and bought extension jacks from places like Radio Shack and installed them illegally.) Long distance calling was expensive and reserved for special occasions. Actually, SaskTel, at that time, was not a customer-friendly organization.
After the courts ruled that SaskTel could no longer maintain its monopoly in Saskatchewan, it gave the Crown corporation a set time to prepare for competition, and things changed dramatically. SaskTel became much more customer friendly. You could buy your own phone, you weren’t charged for extension lines, and over the years, long distance calling packages were introduced which made keeping in touch with family and friends affordable.
How many public telephone booths do you see anymore? They used to be strategically located around the city, particularly in business areas, airports and shopping malls. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen one. It would seem with the widespread use of cellphones, maintaining those booths (that always seemed vandalized) was too costly to maintain for relatively few users.
Our family has always been a SaskTel customer, for both residential and business. When competition arrived in our province, it was tempting to switch, and I’m not sure whether it was loyalty or laziness that kept us in the fold. Certainly, with the advent of cellphones, consumers started shopping around for the best plan; but where one company gives you a better monthly price for a cellphone contract, by the time you add on the extras, they all wind up costing more or less the same. And younger generations no longer have landlines; they are wireless and rely solely on their cellphones for telephone communication.
Now that the previous NDP government in Manitoba has sold off the province’s telephone company, SaskTel stands alone amongst the global giants. What now needs to be determined is whether Saskatchewan should follow suit. Can we exist long-term as an island in a global market? To that end, the SaskTel board of directors is securing a risk assessment study, which I presume will report on the pros and cons of maintaining SaskTel in its current form. It is a wise move. Technology is changing daily and competition for market share is fierce.
Opponents will point to the negative aspects of privatization and some of those points will be valid, especially regarding services to remote areas of the province. Although telephone service is generally available in remote regions, Internet connection is still an issue. And unlike Manitoba, where the majority of the provincial population lives in or around Winnipeg, our population is spread over a large geographical region. However, it will be interesting to watch how our sister province fares without a Crown corporation providing services.
As the pending political storm turns into a full blown tempest, it will be up to Saskatchewan people to keep an open mind, weigh the pros and cons and then decide on the future of SaskTel. Premier Brad Wall has stated nothing will change without the consent of the people. But before we decide, we need to peek into the future.
Our history has proven we are a resilient and innovative province, and regardless of the politics of fear, we continue to thrive. Now take a deep breath . . .