A small Vancouver communications company is squaring off against an industry giant, armed with shrewd marketing and the latest technology at its fingertips.

Novus Communications is positioning itself as an alternative to Calgary-based Shaw Communications in the rapidly changing telecommunications sector. With 5,000 customers, the company currently operates in 80 downtown buildings.

"Our customers really like us for the service we are giving them and for us . . . the little guy, is a real competitive advantage," says Doug Holman, co-chief executive officer of the privately owned company.

Novus provides Internet and cable TV services in the high-density Yaletown area of downtown Vancouver.

But Shaw Communications president Peter Bissonnette says the variety of services his company provides, which includes digital television, aren't comparable to what Novus offers.

Novus, he adds, is a "small competitor" in the B.C. market.

But small businesses can still grab the attention of the marketplace - particularly if they can offer competitive prices.

Bruce Campbell has been a Novus customer for three years. Previously, he was a Shaw client.

"Novus rates are significantly better," Campbell says. "We are currently paying $25 month for about 41 channels and a comparable package with Shaw would be about $39."

Bissonette agrees that that Novus offers a better Internet rate as a stand-alone service, "but Novus does not have the variety of services we have and they aren't comparable," he says.

"Our bundling package gives us an advantage."

Novus recently underwent a corporate shakeup with its original owner, senior Vancouver business executive and real estate tycoon Terry Hui, returning to the firm.

Former president George Burnes is no longer with Novus, and Holman and Donna Robertson have replaced him as co-chief executive officers.

Novus is now considering using its fibre-optic network to provide telephone service over the Internet. Shaw has also announced it will offer its customers that service.

Fibre-optic networks (often referred to as the pipe) allow companies to transmit vast amounts of information compared to the traditional cable networks.

"The one who has the biggest pipe and the best content will emerge as the winner for the consumer," says Dom Louie, a Vancouver-based telecommunications consultant and president of Pacific Broadband Consultants. The company has clients around the world, including Shaw, Rogers and Novus.

Shaw has one of the most fibre-rich networks in North America, notes Bissonnette. "We have spent $300 million in Greater Vancouver to ensure that."

But Novus co-CEO Robertson says she believes her company is leading the way. "We have the biggest pipe and we intend to make our community channel the best there is," she says. "It will be a channel that will focus on what is happening in the area where our customers are, covering the downtown Vancouver area."

Speaking the language of the customer is also a company speciality, she adds. "We can deal with them in Mandarin, Cantonese, Russian, French, German and we will get someone who can speak Persian. We have learned to really pay attention to our customers."

Hui's ownership is significant due to his connections as a major Vancouver power broker and his ready access to millions of dollars in capital.

He is president of Concord Pacific Place, a $3-billion development spread across a 204-acre site close to downtown Vancouver.

Residents in the buildings that Concord Pacific owns have a choice - Novus or Shaw for their Internet and cablevision needs. Fibre-optic cable will allow each apartment to become a multi-media centre with residents accessing Internet connections, digital TV and videoconferencing at speeds that are 360 times as fast as what the competition can offer.

Louie says the telecommunications industry is changing because of the Internet. "Narrowcasting (the ability to put channels on the air with a narrow focus such as the Food Network) is the wave of the future for broadcasting," he says.

He adds he believes there will be room for the little guys such as Novus and the big players such as Shaw, to grow in the heavily populated areas.

The investment to ensure Novus has the infrastructure to deliver product to its customers is costly.

"So far, capital has been an issue, but (Hui) has helped us with that," says Holman. The company is profitable and is showing a positive cash flow.

When Hui began developing Concord Pacific in 1996, he wanted to offer cable services to his customers, but Rogers Communication of Toronto - which was then operating in Vancouver - challenged him.

The case ultimately went before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which held a public hearing on the issue. The federal agency later granted Hui a licence allowing him to offer cablevision to customers on Concord Pacific land.

Eventually, the company's licence was expanded to areas beyond Concord Pacific. Another group of investors took over, but in August of last year, Novus was placed in receivership and a "for sale" sign went up.

In June, Hui regained control. "The company was $22 to $23 million in debt when Terry stepped in and completed the transaction. We are now debt free," Holman says. "We are (now) interested in positioning ourselves as a viable local alternative for Internet and cable to Shaw, Bell and Express Vu."

(George Froehlich can be reached at george@businessedge.ca)