November 19, 2019 3 weeks 4 days ago

Bridging the Digital Divide: Rural leaders told to build broadband themselves

NORTH BAY, Ont. – “You ever open a bag of chips and been sadly disappointed by a crunched up bag, a few crumbs inside, and very little to offer?” asked Mitch Thomson, executive director of the Olds Institute, Olds, Alta.

“It's sad to say but the Canadian experience in rural areas, when it comes to connectivity, has been just that.”

Thomson (pictured, with his disappointing bag of chips), whose community long ago took broadband matters into its own hands, was speaking to about 250 delegates at last week’s Bridging the Digital Divide, Canada's Rural and Remote Broadband conference in North Bay, and urged rural communities to do it themselves when it comes to providing their citizens with viable broadband.

There was no mistaking this strong message last week from many of the presentations and talking to those in between those sessions on the conference floor. By our count, more than 35% of the delegates were from municipalities, regional development corporations, municipally-owned networks or Indigenous communities, some with their own networks.

Olds formed its first technology group in 2004 to try and figure out a way to bring affordable, stable internet to the community, then a 7,000-citizen town off Highway 2 between Calgary and Red Deer. Back then, after a few years of talking and ideas, Thomson said community leaders went to the larger operators to say “we’re just five kilometres off the highway, please come, we’ll help support you, we’ll help find the capital. Nobody wanted to come. It’s a sad story.”

“You can’t wait for somebody to do it for you, you can’t expect somebody to show up with the dough to make it easier.” – Mitch Thomson, Olds Institute

So, the community started to work, came up with a viable business plan in 2010, began construction in 2011 and by 2015 was offering a triple-play of services to homes and businesses, under the O-Net brand. “You can’t wait for somebody to do it for you, you can’t expect somebody to show up with the dough to make it easier.”

Despite lots of mistakes – “boy did we mess up,” said Thomson – O-Net now offers gigabit service in its region, which has also now swelled to a population of 9,200, due in part thanks to fibre everywhere and free Wi-Fi all over the community, too.

It’s a different business when a municipality or an indigenous community or regional development corporation decides to deliver its own broadband to citizens at a fair price. Larger operators’ prices “reflect the arbitrary amount that they’re willing to provide, instead of the abundance that can be afforded.

“Municipalities have the ability to look at this as a utility and put some skin in the game,” added Thomson.

Speaking after a morning which also saw presentations from Laura Bradley, general manager of YorkNet, Melanie Pilon, economic development officer with the town of Dubreuilville (Ont.) and Chad West, IT manager for the County of Kings (N.S.), each of whom outlined the various stages of their locally-driven rural broadband projects was Matt Stein, CEO of independent ISP Distributel.

Even though Distributel is a large third-party internet access provider, it also owns rural infrastructure in British Columbia but Stein was there to advocate for the company’s partnership model it has deployed with Eeyou Communications, which has connected several communities in northern Quebec, which profiled here last year.

“I want you to continue to own your own futures,” Stein (right) told the delegates in his conference-closing keynote, adding the partnership has brought 1 Gig service to Quebec’s far north. “I live in Vaughn, about four and a half minutes outside of Toronto and I have six meg DSL, so I don’t have the speeds that are being delivered in northern Quebec.”

The difference since the launch of the service, Stein said, has been felt immediately in the communities where, for example, it might have taken two days for young Xbox users to download system updates on their old dial-up internet, now instead takes two minutes.

Of course, Eeyou and Distributel offer several more affordable speed tiers, but both companies wanted to make sure services could be had for the same price as in the cities. “When it came to pricing, we quickly arrived in a meeting of the minds by focusing on the needs of the community,” recalled Stein. “Too often, and we've heard examples here at the conference, rural builds end up with pricing that would make even the biggest incumbent phone company blush because there's no competition around to keep it in check.

“We decided to do it differently. We decided, frankly, to do what's right. We anchored our pricing to the same pricing that Distributel offers as a competitor in downtown Montreal, where competition has kept prices low… But interestingly, we and our partners were still able to get the payback we were looking for… all the while delivering great rates and huge value to consumers.”

“Don't wait for some large incumbent to grace your community with their presence. How well has that worked so far?” – Matt Stein, Distributel

Stein said his company and other members of the Canadian Networks Operators Consortium would be more than willing partners for those communities and community groups looking to build out rural broadband. “As the builder and operator, Eeyou needed somebody to take care, not of the physical plant, not at actually laying the fibre, but of selling it, of providing the customer experience, the services that lay on top,” he explained.

“If you're looking for a partner to work with, obviously I'd be happy to talk to you about it, but so would many others. Wholesale ISPs across the country, and there are plenty of them, already know how to take care of the service being layered on top of physical infrastructure. They do it every day. Partner with us.

“Don't lose control of your infrastructure. Don't wait for somebody to do it for you. Don't put your community's broadband future in the hands of other people. Don't wait for some large incumbent to grace your community with their presence. How well has that worked so far?”