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Wireless service sparks controversy   By Steven Hill Reporter

A consultant working with Whistler Cable to set up a new wireless Internet service is accusing the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) of unfair business practices.

Ian Bell, consulting program manager with Whistler Cable, said the RMOW is guilty of anti-competitive behaviour in relation to the establishment of its own wireless Internet service called Yodel.

Bell said he first became concerned with the municipality’s proposed wireless Internet service after reading about it in a press release in May.

“Apparently two similar projects are being developed in parallel in Whistler,” he said. “Whistler Cable has been working on this wireless project for quite some time now.

“I got a little curious about what the municipality was doing, because I read a press release on their Yodel project,” he said. “I went to talk to them, and my natural impulse was to tell them that it made no sense to be essentially building two railroads, so I said let’s consolidate and we will all benefit from a more expans ive wireless network in Whistler.”

But the municipality was already under contractual agreements with Florida-based V-Link, the company who is developing Yodel.

“During those discussions I realized what a threat the wireless service which the municipality is developing, is to Whistler Cable,” Bell said. “In the course of that conversation, I realized the municipality was attacking the hotel Internet service business which is one of the big opportunities that Whistler Cable has been developing for some time.”

Bell said his meetings with municipal staff prompted him to write a letter to Whistler Council concerning the two competing wireless services.

“Immediately I set forward trying to work with the municipality to kind of contain that threat and ensure Whistler Cable wasn’t left in the dust,” he said. “The letter we recently sent to Council tried to articulate that.

“We hope to bring the issue to light at the next Council meeting if we can get on the agenda,” he said. “One thing we are t rying to do is to stem some of the anti-competitive behaviour we are seeing out there.”

Bell accused the municipality of approaching landlords, property managers and strata councils and asking for exclusive arrangements for the positioning of antennae needed for the wireless Internet network.

“The other key thing which has us concerned is that I have personally had municipal staff say they can just pass an ordinance banning visually disruptive wireless antennae and then everybody is out of business,” he said, adding that he wasn’t sure if the statement was a credible threat.

“As we get pushed out of various properties by exclusive agreements with landlords, that will force us to be more creative in terms of where and how we place them,” he said. “That will cost money because creativity is expensive.

“Competition is fine, but let’s keep it on a level playing field,” he said. “One thing the Saperstein family (owners of Whistler Cable) has said to me is they don’t want their taxpayers’ dolla rs going to assist the municipality in competing with their business.”

Bill Barratt, general manager of community services for RMOW, said V-Link originally approached the municipality with the wireless proposal a long time before Whistler Cable thought of getting in on the action.

“V-Link approached us in July of 2002,” he said. “I took their proposal to Council in September and we started moving forward with a contractual agreement to use our facilities.

“We were approached in July, but Whistler Cable only began looking into this in January,” he said. “The first time I spoke to anyone from Whistler Cable about it was in June.”

Although Barratt could neither confirm or deny that V-Link was seeking exclusivity with rooftop antennae positioning, he said V-Link would pay back all public money used for the endeavour.

“Our perspective is that competition is good,” he said. “As for using public money to set this up, all the infrastructure is paid for by V-Link. We have assisted with some market ing, and when the business is up and running they will get 90 per cent of the profits and we will get 10 per cent until 50 per cent of those capital costs are paid off.

“To date the capital costs associated with this are about $140,000.”

Barratt said the intent has always been to take Yodel and sell the service to other resorts outside of Whistler.

He said municipal officials never intended to shun Whistler Cable, or prevent the firm from doing business in Whistler.

“We were approached, and never even considered Whistler Cable because we saw them as a cable television and hard-wired Internet provider,” he said. “I saw an opportunity to drive revenue into this municipality so

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