It has been more than a decade since theWaskaganish Band Council asked me to install a satellite reception system in their community.
That first primitive system marked the beginning of a communications revolution in remote communities across Canada.
The preaching of Tammy and Jim Bakker as well as southern California lifestyles were exposed to curious youth and skeptical Elders.
The culture shock of that first exposure to American culture has long worn off. Northern viewers today are interested in sports coverage, news coverage, Native programming such as Television Northern Canada and, of course, the never-ending soap operas.
Everything related to traditional television broadcasting in Canada is about to change forever. The change is the result of new digital technology. Now one single satellite can broadcast hundreds of digital channels to the marketplace.
Canadian broadcasters have called these new satellites “death stars.” This name shows just how much Canadian broadcasters fear new technology that will force them to compete in the Nineties.
At the present time two major American companies are distributing the death star digital technology—Prime Star Partners and DIRECTV.
Prime Star Partners leases systems and is not available in Canada. RCA Digital sells a small 18-inch system through TV dealers and electronic stores, and may be obtained in Canada—but their package with an 18-inch dish will not work in the North.
Modified RCA Digital systems have already been installed in Cree communities all the way to Whapmagoostui. The hardware cost is $1,600, plus $400-600 a year subscription fee. The only catch is that for now subscribers have to use an American address.
Two major Canadian companies are also going after the market—Expressvu and Power DIRECTV.
Both should be available to Crees shortly.
Expressvu will be offering a signal service of existing Cancom signals with many new additions in a few months. Cancom has had several years of experience with direct-to-home television in the North and will be offering a reasonable selection of channels. Most residents of Cree communities receive some of the planned Cancom TV package at the present time.
Last spring, the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) gave Cancom a monopoly with Expressvu across Canada, including the North.
But rival Power DIRECTV successfully lobbied the government to overturn the CRTC decision and allow competition. Power DIRECTV will now be allowed to distribute a package of TV and audio signals beamed at Canada from an American satellite system.
The move made history because the government had never overturned a CRTC decision before. Opposition politicians accused Prime Minister Jean Chretien of favouritism because his son-in-law is the president of Power Corp., the company that owns Power DIRECTV.
But the government also faced pressure from the Consumers Association of Canada and the Federal Bureau of Competition Policy, which were both concerned that Expressvu would be getting a monopoly over this technology in Canada.
The monopolies that Expressvu and others expected to continue have vanished. This paves the way for an epic communications battle of Star Wars proportions between the rival companies. The mandate of the CRTC is being challenged. Even the very existence of the CRTC may be questioned. It has been obvious for over two decades that the CRTC has been relatively powerless to control computer and satellite information distribution. Some consumers say they should lock up the office and go home.
Canadian broadcasting system owners who have enjoyed the protectionist policies of the CRTC for years now have to get their act together and really compete.
This is good news for the Canadian consumer. For the first time there will be choice on the airwaves. If a local cable system cannot deliver a good program mix, the consumer may disconnect and plug into a satellite service.
Cable companies will be forced to upgrade their selection of signals and perhaps reduce their rates. They will also have to offer more varied services like interactive television and data communications. Rural areas will benefit from better entertainment services from digital satellite operators. Satellite technology can also make it possible to distribute dolby stereo surround-sound and high-definition video.
Cable companies are also behind in high definition TV. It will take years to upgrade rural cable systems in Canada to receive high definition TV, while you can get it right now from a satellite.
It is ironic that some high-level employees of Expressvu/ Cancom living in Canada already have the American digital service installed in their homes. They know a good deal when they see it What does all this mean for the Northern viewer? In order to see for myself, I packed up a modified digital receiver and dish and headed for Waskaganish. This was the location of my first northern communications contract years ago. George Diamond and family were to be my first guinea pigs.
The installation was a snap. Armed with only a screwdriver, wrench and compass, I set up the dish and locked onto the satellite signal in minutes. The results were impressive. The program package I installed was $30 U.S. per month. George got over 40 channels of television as well as 30 channels of music-only channels in digital stereo (including two 24-hour all-blues channels). Setup took only a few hours. Ten years ago, with a large dish, mixing of cement, etc., it would have taken days.
The clarity of the digital TV image was “awesome,” according to one observer. When we hooked up the audio, someone in the room exclaimed, “I want one!”
After favorable tests in Waskaganish were completed, I moved on to Wemindji. My plan was to check out performance further north. Assisted by Earl Danyluk Jr. in Wemindji, the installation process was trouble-free and the reception was excellent The dish I was testing was ideal for the James Bay area.
Later, I designed a package system for all the James Bay communities that will be able to receive any Canadian or American signals.
In both Waskaganish and Wemindji, people seemed to be just as interested in the music-only channels as in the regular TV channels. The quality was astonishing. Once you’ve got the basic system installed, there are connections provided for theatre surround-sound and high-definition TV.
Crees are new members of the global communications village. Digital broadcast technology is a fact of life. When Canadian distributors become established, Canadian programming will be beamed south and new American shows will be seen here. Viewers in southern California may find themselves exposed to scenes of Cree trappers goose hunting or Inuit hunters carving up a whale on the shore of Hudson Bay. Reverse culture shock, eh! While some community members may object to the flood of new outside ideas because of technology, Cree traditions, legends and political ideas also have a place on the information highway, accessible to the world.
Many thanks to George Diamond and family (Waskaganish), Earl Danyluk and family (Wemindji) and Rev. Tom Martin and family (Whapmagoostui).