History of Telecommunications in Canada

The Telegraph

The history of telecommunications in Canada begins with telegraph companies.

By 1847, the Montreal Telegraph Company was established and providing service in the Quebec City - Windsor corridor, with a link to Western Union in Detroit. In 1886, Canadian Pacific Railways Telegraphs came online as a competitor.

Telegraphs were instrumental in the construction and operation of railways. After World War I, most of Canada’s smaller railways were in serious financial difficulty. A bailout by the federal government saw the merger of these railways into the Canadian National Railway, and their telegraph lines became the CN Telegraph Company.

During the period from 1932 to 1964, these two railway telegraph companies, the CN Telegraph Company and CP Railway Telegraphs, competed and jointly offered services. In 1932 they provided national network services for the Canadian Radio Broadcast Commission. In 1939, national weather service; after the Second World War private wire services; in 1956 the first telex services in North America, and in 1964 a cross-Canada microwave radio transmission network.

These two railway telegraph companies were fused to form CNCP Telecommunications in 1980.

In 1988 Canadian Pacific bought out CN, sold 40% of the company to Rogers Communications Inc. and renamed the company Unitel. Decision 92-12 by the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission, the federal regulatory agency, allowed Unitel to provide competitive long-distance services.

In 1993, 20% of Unitel was sold to AT&T Corporation of the United States.

Even though the regulators gave Unitel a discount on payments to the telephone companies for using their access wires for the first five years, a number of factors including the necessity to build and maintain a transmission network 7,200 kilometers (4,500 miles) long to connect Victoria to St. John’s, plus the costs of the POPs and interconnection in toll centers, customer care and billing systems, the people to run it all and the natural competitive practices by incumbent carriers made Unitel unprofitable.

After several years, Rogers Communications Inc. abandoned its interests in Unitel and through a Canadian Creditors’ Protection Act bankruptcy-like proceeding, Unitel’s ownership was reduced to AT&T Corporation and three Canadian banks. The name of the reorganized company became AT&T Canada Long Distance Services Company.

Subsequently, AT&T Corporation of the USA bought out the rest of AT&T Canada through a holding company.

However, the geographic and market factors that made Unitel unprofitable had not changed, and AT&T Canada continued to lose money.

AT&T Canada sold its residential long-distance operations to Primus Telecommunications, and in 2003 went through a second bankruptcy-like reorganization.

The resulting company was re-baptized Allstream, providing corporate and data services.

Allstream was subsequently purchased by MTS of Manitoba and is today the main facilities-based Interexchange carrier competing with the telephone companies.

The Telephone

The telephone companies in Canada can trace their roots to the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell near Brantford, Ontario in 1874.

The world’s first long-distance telephone call was made in 1876 over 16 kilometers (10 miles) of telegraph wires between Brantford and Paris, Ontario.

In 1880, the Bell Telephone Company of Canada was established in Montreal, and other companies providing local service in other cities sprung up across the country.

At the time, long-distance inter-city communications was not technically possible, so these companies each provided telephone service in a local area.

In 1921, the Telephone Association of Canada was formed to promote the construction of a national network and to solve common technical problems.

In 1931, the Trans-Canada Telephone System, again an association of “local” telephone companies, began the development of a national network.

In 1958, a 158-station cross-Canada microwave network was completed - the world’s longest at the time.

In 1983, the association changed its name to Telecom Canada and in 1992 to Stentor Canadian Network Management.

The facilities that made up the national network were owned and operated by member companies such as Bell Canada and BC Tel.

In the previous millennium, there were 58 telephone companies in Canada.

The largest telephone companies were part of a national alliance called Stentor Canadian Network Management, the “Stentor Alliance” or simply, “Stentor”.

These companies were:
British Columbia Telephone Company (BCTel)
Alberta Government Telephones (AGT)
Saskatchewan Telecommunications (SaskTel)
Manitoba Telecom Services (MTS) Bell Canada
The New Brunswick Telephone Company Limited (NBTel)
Maritime Telephone and Telegraph Company, Limited (MT&T)
The Island Telephone Company Limited (Island Tel)
Newfoundland Telephone Company Limited (NewTel).

The remaining companies were called independents because they were not full members of Stentor. There were 30 in Ontario, 16 in Quebec, one in BC and one in the North-West Territories. These companies provided both local and long-distance telecommunication services, as well as cellular service through affiliates, under tight federal regulation.

The Stentor Alliance was terminated effective December 31, 1999.

The Canadian business model mostly evolved to large holding companies owning local operations in many areas plus long-distance transmission facilities, and operating agreements between the companies for interconnect.

BCTel, AGT, Ed Tel and Quebec Telephone merged to form TELUS.

Bell Canada and the four telephone companies in the maritime provinces were reorganized as Bell Canada in metropolitan areas of Ontario and Quebec and Bell Aliant elsewhere, both majority owned by BCE.

These companies are both expanding to provide national service. Both operate national cellular networks.

Radio Communications

The first radio communication in Canada was established by the Marconi Company of London in 1901.

In the same year, Guglielmo Marconi himself, seated before a wireless receiver installed in a tower on Signal Hill at St. John's, Newfoundland, succeeded in picking up a signal transmitted from his station at Poldhu in Cornwall, England.

This historic transmission, the first trans-Atlantic radio signal, took the form of the three dots of the Morse letter "S", and was sent with the aid of a copper wire aerial which the Marconi engineers had ingeniously hoisted aloft by means of a kite.