The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan

 

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Telecommunications

The telephone came early to Saskatchewan: considered to be one of the most compelling and practical “modern conveniences” in the late 19th century, it was introduced at Regina in autumn 1882 by the Bell Telephone Company, a subsidiary of the Boston-based National Bell Telephone Company (est. 1877). The North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) also operated a rudimentary network in the prairie city to connect their barracks with various government buildings. At Indian Head, east of Regina, Major William R. Bell similarly installed a telephone system on his 53,000-acre farm, using barbed wire for the lines. It was Louis Riel’s North-West Resistance in 1885, however, that largely stimulated telephone development in Saskatchewan’s portion of the then North-West Territories, because of the instrument’s capacity for swift and direct verbal communication by which an emergency could be explained to any listener without the need for a specially trained telegrapher to relay or receive messages at either end of the line. Consequenlty, with Riel’s defeat the Bell company began to expand its operations in the Territories. It absorbed the NWMP’s system into its Regina plant, and subsequently established its first exchange in the growing city in 1887. A second exchange was built at Moose Jaw in 1893, though this was later sold to a private investor in 1899—only to change ownership again in 1905 when purchased by the newly incorporated Saskatchewan Telephone Company.

Other towns in the region also began to develop telephone service independently of the Bell system at that time. A common feature among several of them was the extension of rural lines to connect local farmers, an expensive and unprofitable part of the early telephone business. Prince Albert (1890), Moosomin (1892), Yorkton (1900), and Saskatoon (1903) all had privately owned plants of their own, although the Bell company eventually acquired the first three. In the meantime, the corporation extended long-distance circuits to Indian Head, Lumsden, Moose Jaw and Moosomin near the Manitoba border, with connections to Winnipeg and intermediate points.

At the formation of Saskatchewan as a new province within Confederation in 1905, the Liberal administration of Premier Walter Scott undertook to create the basic apparatus of state necessary to provide essential social services for the growing community. A priority was the construction of a government-owned telephone network in response to public demand. Hence, in 1908 the Liberals established a Department of Telephones to oversee the development of a provincial telecommunications system that could unite all Saskatchewan residents into a single community, at low cost to subscribers and taxpayers alike. The plant would include government-owned trunk lines for long distance, municipal exchanges and, most importantly, rural systems built, owned and operated by small joint-stock companies organized by local farmers with aid and regulation from Regina. Because private corporations like the Bell company invested only in profitable urban, not unprofitable rural systems, responsibility for providing telephone service in a province where most of the population lived on scattered homesteads fell by default upon government assistance and the principle of public ownership as a social service organized through the state.

For the next ninety years, the history of telecommunications development in Saskatchewan paralleled the history of the Department of Telephones and its several incarnations. Construction of several long-distance trunk lines commenced in spring 1909 under the direction of James A. Calder, the first Commissioner (later Minister) of Telephones. Additional routes were planned for the 1910 building season from late April to late October or the first snow fall. Within the next three years, the provincial system jumped from twenty exchanges and 100 toll offices serving 3,412 subscribers over 1,132 pole-miles of long-distance circuits in 1910, to ninety-three exchanges and 284 toll offices serving 14,826 subscribers over 3,172 pole-miles of long distance by 1913. These figures did not include the incorporation of 327 farmers’ mutual companies or the construction of 7,554 pole-miles of rural lines to serve an additional 8,024 subscribers. Part of this rapid growth was also due to the government’s purchase of the Bell plant (1909) and other independent systems that had operated formerly in Saskatchewan. This gave the Department of Telephones a monopoly of long-distance service which was retained until 1997.

With the onset of an economic recession in 1913 and the outbreak of World War I a year later, work slowed on the provincial network, owing to higher costs, shortage of materials, and insufficient manpower (now needed for Canada’s military effort overseas). When peace returned in 1918, however, building resumed on long-distance and rural lines, until by 1924 the department announced that “telephone service has pretty well saturated the province.” In fact, more than 97,000 residents subscribed at an average annual rate of $24 to the provincial system, which had grown to 64,744 pole-miles of long-distance and rural lines. Pace was also maintained with the latest advances in telephone technology. Beginning in 1908, the old magneto sets with their weak local battery and bell cranks were replaced by the “central energy” system, by which the electric current needed to transmit messages was generated from the central exchange rather than the individual telephone. This permitted changes in set design from the familiar wooden magneto wall box to the slender candlestick desk model and more compact wall set. The transition also increased switchboard capacity to accommodate many more manual connections by fewer operators, whose role was further reduced by the concurrent development of automatic “machine switching” and dial technology, first installed at Saskatoon (1907) and Regina (1908), which allowed subscribers to complete local calls without operator assistance. This was available only in urban centres until 1974, when the province completed the conversion of the entire network to automatic switching; until then, rural subscribers relied on the older central energy system over party lines.

Following World War I and during the period from 1925 to 1930, telephone development in Saskatchewan was extensive as the economy improved and public demand accelerated. Although the provincial system expanded only modestly in terms of pole-mileage, the Department of Telephones invested heavily in replacement of aging circuits, enhancement of carrying capacity over existing lines, and improvement in quality of long-distance transmission. Exchange offices were expanded, new technology was adapted, and additional wire was strung. Rural construction was also so extensive at the time that by 1929 over 50% of Saskatchewan farmers—the largest ratio in North America—had telephone service. With 13.2 telephones per 100 residents, Saskatchewan fell just short of the national average of 13.8.

When the stock market crashed later that year, followed by the Great Depression and World War II, expansion of long-distance facilities and rural lines was curtailed for nearly twenty years. The number of subscribers to the provincial system plunged, capital expenditure was slashed, many farmers’ mutual companies defaulted on loans and collapsed, while work on rural telephones halted almost completely. The only high point of the 1930s was the inauguration of the Trans-Canada Telephone System (TCTS) in 1932, to which Saskatchewan contributed a large share. Slightly improved economic conditions brought some relief in the late 1930s, when the Department of Telephones returned to modernization and limited extension of the provincial plant. World War II interrupted any further progress, however, owing to the dearth of labour and construction materials, which were needed overseas. At home, meanwhile, the Department of Telephones struggled between 1940 and 1945 to meet the demands of Canada’s domestic war effort, by providing connections to the many training camps established in the province.

With the return of peace and a strong economy in 1945, telephone development grew tremendously. Although still hampered by post-war shortages of equipment and supplies, the construction, extension and renewal of the provincial system moved at a vibrant pace. The old department was also reorganized in 1947 as a Crown corporation under a new name, Saskatchewan Government Telephones (SGT), by the recently elected (1944) CCF administration of Premier T.C. Douglas. This positioned the province for the unprecedented growth of the public plant during the 1950s, when more telephones were added to the system than in all previous years combined. The period also witnessed an aggressive program of dial conversion in every urban and rural exchange, which, when completed in 1974, made Saskatchewan the first province in Canada to achieve that goal. Between 1955 and 1958, meanwhile, SGT completed construction of its portion of the transcontinental radio-relay microwave network, sponsored by the TCTS. These advances in both service and technology made possible the inauguration of Direct Distance Dialing, whereby subscribers could make their own long-distance calls across North America without operator assistance. This included residents of Saskatchewan’s undeveloped far north, where automatic dial exchange for local and limited long-distance calls was available by 1963. Finally, the period from 1945 to 1963 saw the steady renewal and improvement of rural telephones, which now provided service to over 63% of Saskatchewan farmers.

Further development of the provincial telecommunications network increased over the next two decades. Various projects begun in the 1950s, such as the dial-conversion program, construction of additional microwave systems and the burial of circuits underground, continued at a regular pace. Expanding upon available technology, closed-circuit television transmission was inaugurated in 1965 and 1966 on the campuses of both provincial universities for distance learning. Push-button, touch-tone telephones were also introduced in 1967. SGT participated at the same time in the expansion of telecommunications via satellite (1972) and trans-Canada computer connections for digital transmission (1973). Work similarly continued on SGT’s Unserved Area Program, begun in 1966, to connect all farmers to the government-owned network; this program and the buried cable project were both completed in 1976. These achievements paved the way for a new Rural Service Improvement initiative, by which all farmers’ systems were assimilated into the provincial plant by 1990.

The two most significant developments of this twenty-year period were, however, the transformation in SGT’s status as a central player in the Canadian telecommunications industry under a new trade-mark and name, SaskTel, in 1969; and the Crown corporation’s pioneering work in fibre-optic technology. Using high-speed streams of laser-generated light impulses to carry computer-coded voice, image and data information through strands of glass no thicker than a human hair, a fibre-optics telecommunications system has far greater information-handling capacity than any transmission method of the past. SaskTel engineers began to explore the possibilities of the new technology in the late 1970s, and in 1980 the corporation commenced construction of a fibre-optics network which, when completed in 1984, was the world’s longest. A year later, the TCTS followed Saskatchewan’s lead by building a coast-to-coast fibre-optics network to serve the country as a whole.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, SaskTel’s telecommunications monopoly in Saskatchewan was challenged by the federal government and the Ottawa-based Canadian Radio-television & Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to permit competition along with federal regulation. After strong resistance and much discussion, in 1992 NDP Premier Roy Romanow reached a compromise with the Conservative administration of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. SaskTel was granted a five-year moratorium, which the Crown corporation used to streamline its organization, personnel, rates and services, in advance of external competition and CRTC regulation. The moratorium was extended in 1997 for another two years, after which SaskTel came fully under federal regulation.

In the meantime, a variety of long-term projects initiated prior to 1980 were brought to fruition, such as touch-tone dialing, the Rural Service Improvement program, Individual Line Service (to remove the last rural party-lines), and air-to-ground radio-telecommunications. The completion of the province’s fibre-optics network in 1984 permitted the adaptation of further services, such as Direct Overseas and zero-plus dialing for the unassisted placement of international calls by individual subscribers. Advanced digital technology was also made available for Saskatchewan businesses, as SaskTel adopted a “Total Telecommunications” concept to become a full-service provider to every customer. In fact, in 1987 a digital switching modernization program was announced to convert the province to an all-digital network over the next decade. The same year, SaskTel International was incorporated as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Crown corporation to undertake contract work around the world. Among its many achievements was the design, system and management audit, as well as the installation and commissioning of telecommunications and control systems, for the English Channel Tunnel project in 1990–94. Later developments included the introduction of high-speed internet, cellular and personal communications services, starting in 1998.

Since 1908, when the Liberal government of Premier Walter Scott established a Department of Telephones with a simple mandate to connect all settled portions of the new province by means of a publicly owned and operated telephone network, telecommunications in Saskatchewan has grown by leaps and bounds. In just over nine decades, the provincial plant developed from a rudimentary system spliced together from local systems acquired and subsequently linked by government-built trunk lines into one of Canada’s most sophisticated and successful networks. Throughout that long process, Saskatchewan helped to pioneer Canadian telephony and communications as a major participant and occasional leader, adapting much of the technological innovation upon which the growing industry depended and still depends. Over the years, consequently, the old Department of Telephones and its successors, SGT and SaskTel, scored an impressive number of firsts nationwide, culminating with the complete conversion of the provincial plant to advanced all-digital technology in 1995—a year ahead of schedule—making Saskatchewan the first province in the country to achieve that goal.

Ronald S. Love

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Further Reading

Love, R.S. 2003. Dreaming Big: A History of SaskTel. Regina: SaskTel.
This web site was produced with financial assistance
provided by Western Economic Diversification Canada and the Government of Saskatchewan.
University of Regina Government of Canada Government of Saskatchewan Canadian Plains Research Center
Ce site Web a été conçu grâce à l'aide financière de
Diversification de l'économie de l'Ouest Canada et le gouvernement de la Saskatchewan.