Northern Sask. cable TV companies face uncertain future with loss of key platform

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Northern Sask. cable TV companies face uncertain future with loss of key platform
© Nathan Favel / Ile a la Crosse Communications Society The Ile a la Crosse Communications Society in Ile a la Crosse, Sask., is among the cable TV providers that will be impacted by the loss of a key platform at the end of the year.

Operators of small cable television companies in northern Saskatchewan are expressing “shock” about the impending loss of technology they rely on.

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Shaw Broadcast Services’ QT+ platform that many small cable companies in Canada use to deliver TV, mostly in rural and remote regions, won’t be supported beyond Dec. 31, 2022.

Shaw said it has been told by a third-party technology partner, CommScope, that critical components are reaching the end of their serviceable life and that it will stop supporting the platform.

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CommScope deferred requests for comment to Shaw.

The CEO of the Canadian Communication Systems Alliance (CCSA), which represents more than 100 independent companies, said it might mean the end of TV service delivery in some Canadian communities in 2023.

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Nathan Favel, the CEO of the Ile a la Crosse Communications Society in Ile a la Crosse, Sask., said that he spoke with a Shaw representative and while they promised frequent updates, a new platform isn’t on the table yet because there is no viable replacement.

Less than a year to prepare for life without existing platform

Favel said he never received notice prior to last week that the current system is considered at the end of its life.

“That’s the upsetting thing,” he said. “This was just all of a sudden, we get this email and then boom, it says 11 months from this date.”

He said a possible scenario the Shaw rep brought up would involve all current customers switching to small Shaw receivers.

“That’s pretty alarming,” he said. “It will have a big effect on our company.”

The receivers would cost a total of about $34,000 before taxes as well as the cost of other equipment that would be needed, he said.

“How does our company plan for something in 11 months? The last thing we want to do is lose customers,” he said.

Favel said the customers have the right to purchase or rent the necessary equipment.

“Either way, it’s going to be a major cost to our small company,” he said.

Favel said they will be working with Shaw to see what that company can provide to help cover some of those costs. 

He is uncertain if the Ile a la Crosse Communications Society can recoup the money it spent on the equipment it is now using, which he estimates would be normally valued at $100,000.

“To my understanding, a lot of this stuff is going to be obsolete,” he said.

Local community announcements channel must survive transition

He said if they have to switch to newer equipment, then they would have to find a way to incorporate a scroll of community announcements and the feed of the local radio station that’s currently on a local cable channel into the new equipment.

Like other northern communities, Ile a la Crosse uses its community channel for live auctions and other fundraisers for things such as funeral expenses, as well as announcements related to services within the community and the pandemic.

“It’s essential that we continue with that service, especially for our community and for the region,” Favel said.

Candice Laliberte, the manager of Buffalo Narrows Broadcasting in Buffalo Narrows, Sask., estimated 75 per cent of homes in her community use the local cable services.

“We have a lot of people who rely on our cable system in our community,” she said. “It’s going to have a major effect on our customers and in our community.”

Bill Larson, a cable technician with Buffalo Narrows Broadcasting, said he was “pretty shocked” when he heard the news.

“I don’t think anyone saw that coming,” he said. “We’ve recently upgraded to newer equipment that still relies on that service, so it’s pretty devastating.”

He estimated they spent about $250,000 on the new equipment in 2019.

Larson said this will set them back 15 or 20 years, adding millions of dollars has gone into building and maintaining the existing cable system over previous decades.

“We were relying on this to carry on into the future,” Larson said. “It costs a lot of money.”

Shaw responds

CBC News asked Shaw how long the company had known that support for QT+ could be terminated, what it had been doing to prepare for this possibility and whether small cable companies that use the platform were made aware of this possibility prior to last week.

In response, a spokesperson said Shaw was made aware of the discontinuation of QT+ late last year.

The statement said Shaw explored whether any replacement solutions were available for its customers and considered options.

“Unfortunately, we have since determined that there are no viable technology replacements, and we are reaching out to cable companies to help them consider and explore options,” the statement said.

In a notice sent to small cable providers on Friday, Shaw apologized for any disruption the loss of the QT+ service would cause.

In statements provided to CBC News on Monday, a spokesperson said this was not the result of any decision by Shaw and that direct-to-home satellite remains an option for impacted communities.

Fran Moran, a spokesperson for Regina-based Access Communications, told CBC on Tuesday that the not-for-profit cooperative had been working on a service transition for years and that none of its customers would be losing their TV service.

Moran said the loss of the QT+ service wasn’t “entirely a surprise” and that Access had been expecting this for some time, adding the cooperative would be paying the transition costs, not customers.

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