The need for speed: CBT's broadband corporation brings hyper-fast Internet to the Basin

Andrew Bennett
By Andrew Bennett
May 16th, 2012

For $1250 per month Rossland could hold the reins to a municipal Internet utility that connects to a world class, open access, fibre optic network that clocks stratospheric speeds, said Mark Halwa, chief operating officer of the Columbia Basin Broadband Corporation (CBBC), to a group that gathered at the Chamber of Commerce last week to hear the CBBC pitch.

Last September, Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) acquired the broadband assets of the Columbia Mountain Open Network (CMON), a non-profit whose vision had been to provide residents and businesses with an affordable and reliable fibre optic network. Some reports suggested that CMON had been struggling financially and its attempts to expand the network had stagnated.

At the time, CBT president and CEO Neil Muth applauded CMON’s “extremely valuable role in bringing broadband to parts of the Basin,” and recognized that the “further expansion of CMON’s vision for the region requires additional resources that CBT is able to provide.”

CBT formed a new subsidiary—the CBBC—that inherited CMON’s existing contracts, contacts, technical know-how, and the vision to expand broadband throughout the Basin. The CBBC soon began to purchase equipment and launch their new plan.

“I have a lot of need for speed, and we all do,” Halwa said.

A typical evening at Halwa’s house might find both his daughters streaming movies—different ones—while his wife works on the Internet and Halwa himself participates in a videoconference. Nine computers—iPhones to MacBooks—accompany the family on their travels.

As the Internet weaves itself more tightly into our day-to-day lives, this is an increasingly familiar image.

In populous urban centres worldwide, Halwa said there’s “absolute hockey stick growth” in broadband Internet services. The problem in places like the Columbia Basin is the small, widely dispersed populations: there’s no economic incentive for Internet service providers (ISPs) like Shaw or Telus to up the ante and provide broadband.

Hang on—what is “broadband”?

Halwa defined it as Internet connectivity beyond the point “where speed and cost are an impediment.” In other words, broadband services are affordable and so fast that they never, ever, slow you down.

Halwa said the CBBC plans are for “world class” connectivity in the Basin, which he defined as “100 megs symmetrical.”

One hundred megs?

Let’s take it slowly: A typical Rosslander’s Internet connection is, say, “5 and 1.” That means the connection can download 5 megabytes per second and upload 1 megabyte per second.

A “symmetrical” connection means upload and download speeds are the same, say, “5 and 5.”

CBBC’s “world class” connection is roughly 10 to 20 times faster for downloads and 50 to 100 times faster for uploads than Rosslanders currently experience.

For business, education, health, and other sectors, the difference is no small matter. Fast uploads, for example, are crucial for effective videoconferences.

And the same fibre can be used in the future as equipment upgrades push the network to much faster speeds.  Right now, Halwa said, the theoretical speed limit of optical fibres is the equivalent of two-and-a-half months of full high-definition video in just one second, and it’s getting faster all the time.

But if it doesn’t make economic sense for Shaw and Telus to provide broadband, why would the CBBC fare any better? How does the CBBC plan to get a reasonable return on their investment?

It’s all in the power of collective action, Halwa said. “If you build an open access network, that helps make the return on investment a little bit better,” and there are also other tricks up CBBC’s sleeve.

“Open access” means “everybody’s allowed to play,” Halwa explained. “Think of all the telephone poles up and down the highway—there’s a Shaw fibre, a Telus fibre, in some places there’s a Rogers fibre, and so on. Well, that’s silly. Why not have one fibre that everybody can use?”

Halwa compared our present “closed” access to a highway system with a separate road for each type of vehicle, rather than a single public road for all vehicles.

Right now, some 29 Internet service providers in the region operate on 29 different systems. CBBC’s plan isn’t to undercut these ISPs, but rather to enable them with a single, better system.

“You may currently get services from Shaw or Telus. Well, you could continue to get it from them, but on a faster network,” Halwa said. “We’ll let anybody come and operate on our network: this is the free market economy.”

“Open access networks are very popular in Europe,” he continued, “to the point that nearly everywhere is open access fibre, especially in Scandinavia.”

“There are some very big players with an awful lot of money who are trying to make sure open access networks don’t succeed in North America,” he added, “and they’ve been really successful so far. But think about it: it will happen eventually.”

And that’s CBBC’s big plan. The CBBC has negotiated contracts with both Telus and Shaw to tap the Basin network into the Internet backbone itself. From there, the CBBC has committed to build or acquire a network of “feeder fibres” across the Basin to bring it to different communities. There, network management systems act as the “traffic cop” to make sure information goes correctly from A to B. The fibre and network management system is largely the legacy of CMON.

“We’re not going to build a network of fibre optic cables all over the Columbia Basin,” he said, citing costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars. “It would even tap out an entity the size of the CBT. But providing connectivity can be done in different ways. We can purchase an all-fibre connection from Telus or Shaw, we can swap fibre, and we have 85 kilometres of fibre of our own.”

When the fibres reach a town, however, that’s when CBBC needs to get municipalities on board for the next step. In Rossland, for example, the fibre network currently reaches RSS.

If Rossland signs on for a 5 year contract at $1250/month—CBBC’s rate for towns with fewer than 5000 people but more than 2500—the CBBC will pay the $50,000 it costs to run those fibres from RSS to city hall. Suddenly Rossland will be in charge of its own 100 megabyte per second Internet utility.

The $1250/month includes all the network management equipment and training the municipality would require to connect the network to others. The city could sell connections to customers in town or even give connections away as a public service.

For example, the city might opt to run fibre through the new conduit that will soon be installed below Columbia, so downtown businesses could tap right in. Monthly fees to users could help the city pay back it’s own monthly fee to CBBC.

The CBBC has offered its help as the city considers different options for expanding the network in town.

Since Rossland would have control of the network, they could opt to be the city’s own ISP, or they could contract Shaw, Telus, or another company. The city could even choose to erect a wireless tower and connect the whole city all at once.

Halwa used Nelson Hydro, incorporated in 1892 and bought by Nelson in 1898, as an example of why municipalities should want to own their utilities. “Nelson is really reaping the benefits of that now,” he said.

Besides the opportunity to benefit from distribution services, there are savings for the municipality as well.

“At the moment, each municipality duplicates services,” Halwa explained. “Take email: Rossland has an email server, as does Castlegar, and Invermere, Trail, and so on. So guess what, there are 26 email servers! Can we get by with one? Of course we could.”

The $1250/month also includes the same videoconference equipment used by CBT. If all the Basin municipalities were connected on the CBBC network, city staff and politicians across the region could communicate in person (more or less) without having to get into a vehicle and drive.

“The more we aggregate, the more we save money and the faster things go,” Halwa said.

Right now the CBBC is doing the rounds, gauging community interest by presenting to city staff. Fourteen of the 16 communities CBBC has approached so far have shown strong interest. Trail has already signed on the dotted line. Halwa presented to Rossland city staff about five weeks ago, but council has yet to discuss the matter.

Whether or not Rossland chooses to jump on the CBBC bandwagon, Halwa stressed the importance of installing conduit every time a road gets ripped up to fix or replace water and sewage systems. Rossland’s rocks and hills make it difficult to update the city—running fibre in a municipality typically costs between $25,000 and $50,000 per kilometre.

A conduit network makes it much easier and “would invite competition” from Internet providers, Halwa said.

Looking over the history of essential services, Halwa said, “Once came water, then came sewer. This is just as essential in my opinion.”

A one-day roundtable meeting  in Cranbrook on June 5 will address the issues of internet service providers and wireless internet service providers operating in this region. Participants will discuss internet services that are currently available, CBBC’s plans, and review the impact of other developments in telecommunications in BC. Contact Rhonda Gilbertson, Administrative Assistant, Columbia Basin Trust, at rgilbertson@cbt.org, 250-426-8810 or 1-800-505-8998.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Columbia Basin Trust would like to clarify that the one-day roundtable mentioned above is for Internet Service Providers and not the general public. Thanks.

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