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Nunavut Infrastructure Gap Report Highlights Startling Lack of Connectivity Options
News stories highlighting the breadth and depth of the digital divide and its impacts in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic have dominated the headlines in recent months, but a new report emphasizes the degree to which dozens of communities in one Canadian province have struggled with connectivity issues for years. The recently released Nunavut Infrastructure Gap Report [pdf] shows what broadband access looks like for the 35,000 or so mostly Inuit residents of the nation’s youngest province, and what solutions exist for closing the gap for tens of thousands who struggle to get online.
Nunavut is the northernmost of Canada’s provinces, made up of two interlocking geographies: the landmass immediately north of Manitoba and east of the Northwest Territories, and the large collection of islands curled around Baffin Bay to the west of Greenland. It has a population barely 1/20th the size of Wyoming (the U.S.’s smallest by population) despite being the second-largest political subdivision by area in North America, and a population density of just 0.05 persons/square mile.
A Host of Infrastructure Gaps
Fibre Centre: Carrier Neutral Connectivity In New Brunswick
The Fibre Centre began linking Boston and Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, in April 2015 with dark fiber. The network neutral 25,000 square foot is a network-neutral data center and meet-me-room where physical networks can connect. The project “offers a route around the big-city carrier hotels” and its visionaries hope to reproduce it in other communities.
Hub City Updated
In 2000, a now defunct company invested $960 million to lay a giant fiber-optic cable between the Canadian Maritimes and Europe. When the company went bankrupt, Hibernia acquired the fiber, which runs under the community of Moncton. There is also a second similar cable running in the city of about 72,000 people, which put Moncton in a good location for a colocation facility. The community obtained the nickname “Hub City” back when railroads where the main form of transportation, but the nickname still applies.
The city helped establish the Fibre Centre within Moncton as a way to contribute to economic development and improve services for the city. One of the owners of the facility, Hunter Newby, has visited us for the Community Broadband Bits podcast episodes 111 and 104. Newby has been involved in other carrier neutral projects and hopes to reproduce this model in other communities.
Ryan Sorrey, Director of Information Systems for Moncton described some of the benefits to the city:
“Our partnership with the Fibre Centre has provided our organization with several advantages, including enhanced reliability, access to higher speed network(s), and opportunity for increased connectivity between municipalities for greater collaboration, and the benefit of more direct connections to major cloud providers.”
Open Access Muni On The Way In Campbell River, B.C.
Located on the southern end of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island sits the coastal city of Campbell River. The community recently received a $50,000 grant from the Island Coastal Economic Trust (ICET) to pursue better connectivity through a municipal open access network initiative.
Retain and Attract
The “Salmon Capital of the World” is also home to other industries that increasingly need access to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. Approximately 31,000 people live in Campbell River. The island’s forestry and mining companies need to have the ability to transfer large data files, such as 3D renderings, detailed maps, and similar geographic files, to business associates. In addition to making the current situation better for existing industries, community leaders want to attract new industries. From a July Campbell River Mirror article:
“We need to retain our existing businesses and enable them to grow in place,” [Economic Development Officer Rose] Klukas said in a release. “We are also looking to attract and support technology and creative sector entrepreneurs – designers, programmers, software engineers, and more – and competitively priced, high-speed broadband is a must-have.”
The ICET grant will fund the completion of a fiber-optic ring that's owned by the city and currently used only for municipal operations. The city will expand the ring and allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to offer services to local businesses via the fiber-optic infrastructure.
The First Of Its Kind
This project will be the first open access municipal network on Vancouver Island. In addition to the more immediate need of better connectivity for Campbell River, ICET hopes to determine if this same model can be duplicated elsewhere on the island.
Broadband Communities Regional Conference This Fall In Minneapolis
"Fiber For The New Economy" will be the theme of Broadband Communities' annual regional conference which is scheduled from Oct. 18th to 20th in Minneapolis.
The conference will explore the hottest developments in fiber and economic development with panel discussions and workshop sessions on such topics as Google Fiber, incumbent and other provider deployments, and public-private projects, according to Jim Baller, the conference’s economic development chairman.
There will also be sessions about developments in “major verticals,” including health care, education and energy, adds Baller, who is also co-founder and president of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice.
The conference will focus on broadband activities and projects in primarily Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Montana, as well as western Ontario and Manitoba.
The Blandin Foundation is assisting Broadband Communities with content and conference planning, a move that means the Minnesota non-profit will have a much smaller fall event of its own, said Bernadine Joselyn, Blandin Foundation director of public policy and engagement. Blandin’s fall conference is scheduled for Sept. 13th and 14th in Duluth. For further information, go to the event website.
Key facts on the Broadband Communities’ Conference
What: “Fiber for The New Economy”
Where: Radisson Blu Downtown Hotel, 35 S. Seventh St., Minneapolis, Minnesota 55402.
When: Oct. 18-20, 2016
Register online for the conference at the event website. Check back in the future with the main event page for more as the agenda is set.
"Olds" is First Gigabit Town in Canada
We introduced you to Olds, Alberta and their community network O-Net in 2012. Now this community of 8,500 will be the first Canadian "gig town" where residents will have access to a gig at incredibly low prices.
CBC News reports that the Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development, the nonprofit organization building the network, recently approved the upgrade. Residents with 100 Mbps will have access to a gigabit with no increase in price. Depending on how they bundle, the price for Internet will range between $57-90 per month.
CBC's Emily Chung noted how much of rural Canada offers only dial-up or satellite. Olds used to have the same problem; businesses were considering leaving town:
"We had engineering companies here who were sending memory chips by courier because there wasn't enough bandwidth to deal with their stuff," recalls Joe Gustafson, who spearheaded the project to bring a fibre network to Olds.
"Now there's no talk about people leaving because of bandwidth challenges."
The $13-14 million project, which also included a video conference center and 15 public use terminals for residents, launched in July 2012. The organization acquired a $2.5 million grant from the province of Alberta and a $6 million loan from the town of Olds. When incumbents were not interested in providing service over the network, O-Net adapted:
"We said, 'Well I guess if we're going to do this, we have to do our own services,'" Gustafson recalled.
The Olds Institute spent $3.5 million to buy the necessary electronic equipment to run internet and other services on the network and to build a central office to house it all. Last July, it launched O-Net.
The community-owned service offers not just internet, but also phone and IPTV services — TV signals carried on the network that includes dozens of SD and HD channels, and movies on demand that can be paused and later resumed.
Canadian Community Brings Fiber to All in Alberta Town
Back in 2010, we reported on SuperNet in Alberta, Canada. We noted how, even though it resulted in significant middle-mile infrastructure expansion, there were still many, many Canadians along the route that were not connected. We drew a parallel between that experience and the focus on middle mile infrastructure via the broadband stimulus programs.
In October, Broadband Communities Magazine carried Craig Settles' article on Olds, a small community in Alberta that overcame the last-mile challenge by working for over 10 years to create that last-mile connection, culminating in O-Net. This town is an inspiration for other communities who decide to take matters into their own hands and find a way to get members connected and engaged.
Settles tells how the process began as a collaborative effort to get organized and revitalize the economy. A technology committee was charged with bringing fiber throughout the county, but the expense was prohibitive. From the article:
"The initial estimate to lay fiber optic cable throughout the county was approximately $80 million [Canadian dollars], well beyond OICRD's [Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development] funding ceiling,” states Joe Gustafson, who was OICRD chairman at that time. “The Tech Committee subsequently refocused on just the town of Olds and its population of just over 8,000, which brought the estimate down to $13.5 million, or about $3,140 per premises passed.”
The story goes on, taking us through several stops and starts the community experienced when working with private providers:
“To date, few incumbents see value in working with a community on a network such as this,” states Craig Dobson, currently the director of Olds Fibre Ltd. (OFL) and initially a consultant for the institute. “In essence, they believe strongly in facilities-based competition and appear to be threatened by market- based services competition that open- access networks enable.” Open-access networks rely on service providers for revenue – without them, the networks are not sustainable.
Solving Middle Mile Availability Does NOT Solve Last Mile Problems
Perhaps the biggest disappointment from the broadband stimulus program was its focus on middle mile investments in a bid to avoid overly upsetting powerful incumbent providers who do not look kindly upon competition (something we discussed here). Some claimed that by increasing middle mile options, the private sector will have greater incentive to invest in the next-generation broadband networks communities desperately need. While this is undoubtedly true, it ignores the biggest hurdle facing network deployers: the high cost of building the network. Reducing the operating expenses of a new network by dropping backhaul prices does very little to allow a deployer (private, public, etc) to better afford the high capital cost of building the network. To illustrate, I could greatly improve my vertical but I still would not play in the NBA (apparently, that requires talent also). Remarkably, we have a fantastic test case of what happens when a government builds massive middle-mile connections and expects the private sector to complete the last mile build: Alberta Province in Canada. Ten years ago, Alberta began building the Supernet, a massive mostly fiber backbone delivering 100Mbps into just about every town in the province (we wrote about this in the back of our Breaking the Broadband Monopoly report). Despite the fact that anyone could get affordable backhaul, a recent Calgary Herald article revealed that half a million people still only have access to dial-up. This illustrates an important lesson: by making ubiquitous backhaul available, the private sector did invest. Unfortunately, it invested only in the profitable areas and has left perhaps a larger problem behind for the public sector to solve.
Canada Joins Rest of World With Open Access Requirement
Until this decision, the established telecom companies could "throttle" third-party services, by slowing them down or limiting downloads.In Canada, these huge companies also claim that such regulations will decrease their investment in next-generation networks, likely a hollow threat. Regardless, it is a strong argument for public ownership of essential infrastructure. How many communities should be denied next-generation communications because some massively profitable global company is having a snit with the regulator? Far better for communities to be self-determined, by building their own networks. When networks are run as infrastructure, they are open to independent service providers, just as the roads are open to shipping companies on equal terms. Canada's regulator has made a difficult decision - but as Karl Bode reminds us, let's wait to see if they actually enforce it.