Established in September 2003, the full service provider offers local, long distance, Internet and, most recently, VoIP (Voice-Over- Internet-Protocol) to subscribers across Ontario.
CEO Drew Reid, who has worked in the telecom industry since deregulation in 1996, first approached Wikwemikong and former Chief Walter Manitowabi with the idea of a First Nations company in 2002.
Manitowabi saw the potential and quickly became its champion. In September 2003, they launched the company.
The arm’s-length corporation, owned by the band, employs five and has a branch office in Toronto.
Duke Peltier serves as its president with a board of directors made up of members of the Wikwemikong Development Corporation.
With a dozen agents scattered across Canada, the company has more than 2,000 subscribers, mostly in 15 bands across Ontario. They are examining lucrative American and international markets.
In Canada, they are able to provide services as a licensed provider under the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, says Reid, but in the U.S. they need to be licensed in each individual state.
Shaking loose the crumbs Reid says the global industry has experienced many financial and corporate shakeups which have trickled down as opportunities for the smaller providers.
Besides branding themselves as an Aboriginally- run company, they offer a one-bill solution with local lines and competitive pricing on products that is starting to sway many customers in Northern Ontario, where, Reid says, “telecom products tend to be overpriced and have been for a long time.”
First Nations customers on-reserve do not pay any tax. There is no cost to sign up and the company offers to convert an existing phone line from their former carrier over to FirstTEL or they will install a new one.
Reid says a major challenge at startup was just getting the company’s name known and providing potential consumers with the confidence that they could provide adequate service. Running an Ontario-wide company with national aspirations while being based in Manitoulin has posed a geographical challenge as well.
“It’s complicated launching a company like this because it is a competitive industry, but it is a very large market. There are many companies out there but there aren’t too many distinctive local providers.”
Reid, who relocated to Manitoulin from Toronto to launch the company, discovered island residents were “a few years behind on the wave of the industry,” such as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), considered a new techology in Northern Ontario. High-speed Internet was introduced only a few years ago. But that all will change shortly, he says.
The company has also successfully completed testing of cellular service on the island.
A test tower was erected this past year in the Wikwemikong area to provide service in areas where it was never possible. It worked, and officials are now awaiting members of band council to approve installation of cellular service. “It’s a very much needed and wanted product in the area.”
FirstTEL is negotiating contracts with some major Ontario carriers, including Primus, Bell and Telus, to install cell towers in various areas of Manitoulin.
As the company grows, more staff is expected to be hired in the next three months. FirstTEL is forecasting sales of about $1 million in 2005, up from the quarter-million dollars they posted in 2004.
“It’s exciting and fun to see the company come together...and, really, the sky’s the limit. It’s a matter of subscribership and providing competitive rates in an industry which is changing so quickly.”
Locally, Wikwemikong residents will finally be able to enjoy the full range of services offered by their area provider.
While industry deregulation forced Bell Canada to open up their switches to other companies, Amtelecom Communications, FirstTEL’s competitor, was one of the last 24 independent telecoms in Canada and still held a monopoly in local phone services in that area of the island.
FirstTEL is now in negotiations to work out a favourable solution with their competitor to offer Wikwemikong-Mindemoya residents a choice on their local service.