Peter Bissonnette, President of Shaw Communications

Credit: Chris Bolin

Peter Bissonnette is at the centre of the fray, and he’s loving every minute of it. In his 16 years at Shaw, he has witnessed first hand the radical trans-formation of an industry. The 59-year-old native of North Vancouver started his career as an air force radio technician, and spent 13 years working on network ¬services for BC Tel before moving into the management side of the ¬business at Shaw. BCBusiness caught up with Bissonnette recently by phone at his Calgary office for his ¬impressions of an industry at a crossroads.

I remember when Shaw was the cable company. Now you’re vying for market share in Internet delivery and home-phone service. Did you envision this when you started in the industry?

When I started at Shaw, we had about 400,000 customers and our company was in growth mode. We offered pure, simple, cable TV services. There was zero revenue coming from Internet and now it’s almost half a billion dollars. It took a huge amount of effort to build the ¬infrastructure and backbone – things we ¬never envisioned we would ever need.

I remember our first fibre-optic splice in North Vancouver in 1992, with the chairman of the CRTC at the time, Keith Spicer, doing the final splice. Now our company has backbone that goes all across Canada and the U.S. In B.C. alone we now have over a million customers.

How much of Shaw’s business is cable TV?
Cable, including digital, high-definition and basic analog, still represents two-thirds of our business.

Shaw is currently pushing aggressively into the landline telephone market. Could that become as big a part of Shaw’s business as cable TV and Internet access?
It could, and not just residential, but also the small and medium enterprise markets. We made investments with that in mind.

At the same time, Telus is moving into the TV market. Do you believe it will be a significant competitor in this space?
I always hate to comment on our competitors and what their strategies are. We aren’t seeing much impact from it. And I think that Telus, one day, will have a product that is not differentiated that much from ours. We’re aware of what our competitors are doing, but clearly our relationships with our customers are based on having products that really work and are reliable.

Mobile phones are the one area where Shaw doesn’t compete with Telus, Rogers and Bell. Will Shaw enter that market?
We’ve certainly looked at it. We don’t see a compelling need for another voice provider in that space. We don’t have customers saying, ‘Gosh, I’d take your services if only you had wireless.’ We’ve looked at a time, maybe two years from now, where there may be greater application, over some sort of WiMax wireless networks, to provide converged services as well as a voice product.

The telephone companies are dabbling in broadband converged offerings: satellite ¬radio on their telephones and video clips. So it’s becoming more acceptable to users.
We’re waiting until we can converge the broadband connectivity so a customer with a wireless device has the ability to speak on it and also have access to other broadband devices – maybe to a personal video recorder hooked up to their TV, or maybe to their in-home wiring to control their alarm systems. There are manufacturers right now who are working on that; we’ve met with Motorola, Cisco, Scientific-Atlanta. We’re looking at it, but we’re not ready to do anything definitive.

You have spoken out recently on a couple of contentious issues: Shaw’s refusal to hand over customer information to the Canadian Recording Industry Association, and its decision to slap a $10 surcharge on Vonage’s Internet phone service over Shaw’s cable infrastructure. Has Shaw made a conscious decision to stake its territory and vigorously defend it?
In both of those situations, it was actually our customers that were driving the strategy. In the case of the recording institute, we have an obligation to protect the privacy of our customers. That’s paramount. The recording companies have copyrights and certain rights that go with that, but the one right they don’t have is to tell us when we give over customer information. Other ISPs were quite prepared to hand that information over. We weren’t. And we went to court and we won. On the issue of Vonage, many of our customers have our high-speed Internet service and our cable service, and they were also aware that when they have a third-party, ride-along telephone service, they’re contending with the Internet traffic, so voice traffic isn’t as robust as, say, email or peer-to-peer downloading.

Some customers said to us: ‘Is there any way you can give us more assurance that if I have this service, when I am using your Internet, that my service will not be impaired by other Internet traffic?’ We said there is a way we can do that, there’s a cost to us, and we’re more than delighted to sell you a quality of service.

How did a kid from North Vancouver end up running one of Canada’s big-four data service-providers?
I grew up in North Vancouver and went to Holy Trinity Parish. And then I went to the seminary of Christ the King in Mission. I was there for three years in a monastic setting. I was going to high school as a seminarian and had an interest in becoming a parish priest one day, and going back to North Vancouver. But then we moved to Ottawa. I did one more year in a seminary there, and then joined the air force as a radar technician. After that I spent a year in a technical job in Ottawa, then went back to Vancouver and within a month was working with BC Tel.

I took executive management courses at Queen’s University and UBC because my great love was working with people. I’d been told in those days that I had some leadership qualities, and I certainly had the aspirations.