Only So Super
The Alberta SuperNet was supposed to make our province the best connected place on the planet. So what happened?
by Fil Fraser
As Alberta’s centennial celebrations were winding down on Sept. 30, 2005, a government news release announced that the Super-Net was up and running. Technically, it was. And in the three years since, this broadband pipeline meant to give rural residents the same high-speed Internet access enjoyed by urbanites has been embraced by public-sector institutions through out small-town Alberta. Students are attending interactive lectures with professors in faraway cities. Big-city medical specialists can observe patients and advise surgeons performing operations in country hospitals.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for private households and businesses in small communities. For them – and here it’s worth remembering the SuperNet was first and foremost an economic development initiative – our own little information superhighway remains a dream unfulfilled. Not dead, mind you; a fascinating array of players and wannabe players is jostling for position that will allow them to complete the commercial extension of the SuperNet over the so-called “last mile” to its envisioned end users. But the promise of rural expanses where small businesses can compete on a level playing field (as far as connectivity is concerned, at least) with urban and global competitors has yet to be realized.
In a status report released last June, the Alberta Council of Technologies endorsed the vision behind the SuperNet, describing broadband as “a rural economic enabler.” In the minds of the council’s Rural Broadband Working Group, a committee made up of tech entrepreneurs and association reps, however, the problem has been with the execution. “A couple of years later, Super-Net is surrounded in controversy and the anticipated advantages are unrealized: private usage has not materialized and significant gaps in service and questionable service standards are prevalent. And blame is dispersed. We hear of corporate giants not performing, residential and small-business usage lagging, a confused rural constituency and a lack of leadership.”
So what went wrong with the project, and who needs to do what to put it back online? Early on, there were more than the usual project-management headaches. The major private-sector partners in the project, Bell Canada and Axia NetMedia, came to legal blows over their contractual obligations at one point (the dispute was settled out of court in 2003). Even by the government’s announced light-up date in 2005, it had taken two years more to build than planned. But the deepest flaw in the scheme was that it was superimposed on an existing telecommunications infrastructure that is largely controlled by a third party, Telus Corporation, and subject to federal regulation. Completing the last mile will require the co-operation of both, the ingenuity of local Internet service providers and probably more infusions of public money.
It’s not much to ask, considering how far we’ve come already. The first ripples of this new wave of communication came into being barely a decade and a half ago. Volunteer communities across Canada began to develop services that would let people list and retrieve information about or of interest to them and communicate both publicly and privately with members of local and global communities. The FreeNet movement of the mid-1990s emerged when the World Wide Web was still in its infancy. The impact, even in the world of dial-up at 28.8 kilobytes per second (kbs), was transformational. In a worldwide initiative called Project Gutenberg, thousands of volunteers were hand-typing the great works of literature into the Internet (no optical character recognition scanners around then), making the so-called “public domain” really public. Anyone with a computer could read Shakespeare or Dickens or Machiavelli, free.
The Edmonton FreeNet, led by Penny McKee, then director of the Edmonton Public Library, created great excitement when it was launched in the fall of 1994. Only a relative few of us had Internet accounts then, but more than 200 new members signed on each week in the first year. The service, essentially a community bulletin board, offered text but no graphics. And, long before Internet cafés, FreeNet public access terminals popped up in libraries, computer stores and other public locations. Similar programs multiplied across the country.
In less than a decade, technology moved communications from dial-up services to coaxial cable, to wireless networks to the nearly limitless, speed-of-light, carrying capacity of fibre-optic cable. We raced from text to colour photographs to video to live conferencing in less than a generation. High-definition video and sound, real-time, two-way (or many ways), face-to-face communication are now keystrokes away. Entire libraries, movies and television programs, replications of rare documents, not to mention every kind of music, are there for the taking.
In the midst of this transformation, the Government of Alberta announced in 2000 it was partnering with Bell and Axia and kicking in $193 million to build something called the Alberta SuperNet. Bell would own and operate the base area network reaching 27 communities, laying new cable in places it didn’t exist and leasing it from incumbent carriers where it did. The government would be its anchor tenant. Axia would manage the network services and serve as an “operator of operators,” linking local Internet service providers to the network, under a 10-year, renewable contract. With the help of these local ISPs, the extended area network would eventually reach more than 400 communities.Pages: 1 2 3 4