It’s Time to Ditch 867

The heavily-regulated 867 area code that almost every northerner has a phone number in is a relic from a bygone telephone era.

Phone numbers in the 867 area code are more expensive to own and maintain than others in North America, and it’s often more expensive for people Outside to call into 867.

That puts northern citizens and businesses at a disadvantage.

This truth was brought to startling clarity last month when Iristel introduced the NorthwesTel Tax: you must pay a $20 premium if you want a number in the 867 area code.

What’s more, to keep North American long distance plan costs down for all of its customers, Iristel had to exclude Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Instead, callers must pay 15¢ per minute to access residents of the Canadian North, making the 867 area code among the most expensive to call in the world.

But there’s really no reason for any of us to still have numbers in the 867 area code.

We could easily abandon it, saving ourselves money, improving our telephone services, and making it less expensive for people around the world to contact us.

This is easiest to accomplish with mobile devices.

Many of us are abandoning landlines anyway, so when you get a mobile device just get a number in any area code other than 867.

Once you have a mobile device with a less expensive area code, there are many ways to cut costs on telephone calls.

Unlike Iristel, none of the major mobile carriers charge a premium to call into 867, so you can sign up for one of their long distance plans and call your friends in the North for nothing.

Or if a lot of your contacts are on the same mobile carrier as you, you might be able to sign up for a service that allow you to call them for free wherever they are in Canada.

Bell, for example, will let you call any other Bell mobile customer in Canada without limit for $15 a month.

But why pay anything extra at all? These days, if you have a mobile device, you have a data connection which you can use to your advantage.

The free Vonage app for iPhone or Android device, for example, will let you call any number in Canada or the US for nothing — including 867 numbers.

This doesn’t require an account with Vonage, you just need to download and install the app.

Of course, another option is the well-known Skype service, which offers apps for every major mobile platform. Skype-to-Skype calls are free, but you have to pay a nominal fee to call actual phone numbers.

The most robust option for making telephone calls over your mobile device’s data connection is probably an app for Android, iPhone and iPad called Line2.

For $10 a month you get a real Canadian or US phone number that includes unlimited North American long distance calling and steeply discounted international calling.

For $5 more you can get a North American toll-free number.

Line2 is so capable and of such high quality that you could use it exclusively instead of your device’s built-in phone app.

Alternatively, use Line2’s advanced call management features to forward calls to an existing landline or mobile number.

If you’re still so old fashioned that you absolutely need a landline phone, the options are almost as good.

Of course, there’s Iristel. For less than $20 a month you can get any Canadian phone number (other than 867 — that’s where the $20 NorthwesTel Tax would come in) that includes 500 Canada-USA long distance minutes every month.

Another good landline option is Vonage, which offers a service identical to Iristel.

For $10 more you can get unlimited long distance calling to dozens of countries, including Canada and the US.

Then there’s a service called Fongo which is sponsored by Dell in Canada. It’s a decent dirt-cheap hybrid landline-mobile solution, if you don’t mind some ads.

Just download the Fongo app on your iPhone or Android device to sign up for a free Canadian phone number.

You can use the service on your mobile device for free, or you can have a home phone installed for a measly $5 a month.

Fongo includes unlimited free calling to most Canadian cities. A major omission here, as you might expect, is the North.

Fongo charges a 24¢ per minute premium to call 867 area code numbers.

But all of this is just the tip of the iceberg and points to an interesting and imminent future, when not only 867 but all area codes are irrelevant.

“Area codes” are exactly what their name implies — a unique number that indentifies the location of callers. They were used to assess and levy fees based on variable distances over physical telephone networks.

But now that more and more telecommunications is occurring over the internet, area codes and even phone numbers themselves are simply redundant.

Nowehere is this more true than in the Canadian North, where a dependence on one heavily regulated area code — 867 — keeps service costs high and disadvantages citizens and businesses.

And nothing is changing with that any time soon, so it’s time to just move on ourselves.

Sign up for a phone number in a different area code and enjoy the cost savings, improved service, and easier access to the rest of the world.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, January 4, 2013.








6 thoughts on “It’s Time to Ditch 867

  1. Andrew, your argument leads me to wonder if you’re aware that a great many 867 subscribers don’t actually live in Whitehorse or Yellowknife. The reason it costs more for subscribers in the entire service area is that the city users, which Northwestel makes a profit on, subsidize the rural users.

    Northwestel serves communities where it can cost as much as $10k to make a service call, and considerably more if there’s a major outage.

    I think it’s good that we have competition here, but there are significant questions about Iristel–for instance, will it offer 911 service in Whitehorse? And will DSL lines actually provide sufficient bandwidth? Because cable internet is currently only available in Yellowknife and Whitehorse.

    …which brings up another thing: for most Northwestel subscribers outside Yellowknife and Whitehorse, DSL is the only option available, but guess what? You can’t get DSL without a basic phone line! Do the numbers still make sense in that case?

    • Brett, thanks for your questions. I won’t respond to them here. Suffice to say I’ll be addressing these issues and others like them over the next few months in my Geek Life columns leading up to the CRTC hearings.

  2. I gave up waiting for Bell’s franchise aka Northwestel to provide any kind of modern telephone service here in Tagish, 120 kms from Whitehorse. I switched my business over to Iristel, ditching Bell because:

    – They are withholding and price gouging on service
    – Couldn’t answer the simplest of questions instead deflecting responsibility with fear mongering
    – Had no interest of providing service unless I would support and initiate a multi year CRTC action
    – Blew total BS at me why they couldn’t troubleshoot the easiest of tasks
    – Actually went out of their way to impede my business and capacity to generate income
    – Outright rejected any kind of offer of collaboration to remedy their deficiences

    Bell did the above to my friends, neighbours and community.

    I vote with my wallet and don’t support bogus dictatorships. Northwestel is heading for the heap to join Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad and Idi Amins of the world, who all appeared very confident of their position until the very end.

    Northwestel = Ghost of business past

    So far I am very happy with Iristel. They were prompt in answering my questions, provided my business with so many options and features and delivered a quality product and service. The first thing that someone says to me when I call on this new service is about the very high quality audio of our conversation.


  3. Andrew, I agree with the fact that here in the North things have been more expensive than in the provinces and the quality lower. This goes for the communication systems also. With a monopoly on this market, things have started going downhill for the regular user of basic telephony. The internet here is not as fast as to support well Skype and people don’t take kind to smartphones to use Vonage as the data bills are quite hefty.

    The first provider after Northwestel has already come with better pricing and free calls to all of Canada. Yes, if you need to call into 867 they charge you $0.15, but I am discussing from a Northerner’s point of view. I have done Skype- not enough bandwidth, I don’t have a smartphone- quite useless here. This provider, Iristel still uses the Internet that is supplied by NWTel, but it saves you the telephone costs by significant dollars. I read about VoIP technology and one of its main advantages is that it is way cheaper than analogue and that you can have any number you want (416, 504, 867, 226).

    Think about this as a solution for a business: you have an 867 number from which you call for free in all of Canada. Let’s say that you clients are from Vancouver and Toronto and are reluctant to call you there because of the costs. You can ask for a Vancouver and a Toronto number to be added to your account and the clients will call you at a local (free) rate.

    In the end, we must search carefully for alternatives….

    • Jim, thanks for the comment.

      Just a couple of points I moderately disagree with. In regards to internet bandwidth, from a volume and speed standpoint, it’s not that bad – as long as you subscribe to Northwestel’s highest end services. At home I correspond almost exclusively via Facetime video chat over the internet and I don’t have any problem. Where we run into trouble in the North is with cost and redundancy. We are severely overcharged for what we get and our link south is tenuous and subject to regular catastrophic failure.

      Secondly, regarding smartphones, we have a superlative network to support them in the major centres (Whitehorse and Yellowknife). It’s better than many much larger Canadian cities, really. I turfed my landline years ago and haven’t looked back since. Instead, I use my mobile number moderately and depend heavily on the Line2 VOIP service on my iPhone over the mobile data network.

      On the other points I think we can agree: increased competition that instigates a wider variety of cost-saving options for northerners is essential.

      Thanks again for your input.

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