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Only So Super

The Alberta SuperNet was supposed to make our province the best connected place on the planet. So what happened?

Oct 1, 2008

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.

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3 Responses to Only So Super

  1. Graham Fletcher says:

    As the owner of The Internet Centre, and the guy who started the commercial Internet in Alberta, I found Telus PR piece with respect to this issue about unloaded copper wire curiously ill-informed, especially about their own technology.

    Some clarification:

    In almost all cases where Telus is putting in fibre (large centres btw – not the small communities that Supernet would serve) they lay it ALONGSIDE the copper. Telus knows copper wire is valuable where it is, and their standard HDTV offering is put out in communities on equipment built closer to the home, and is piggybacked on top of the existing copper to push both Internet and HDTV signals down the copper wire the last few hundred metres to the home. The copper remains in place ALWAYS because standard telephones still depend on that wire to the Telus wire center and the Telus phone switch. Moreover, this copper wire is CRITICAL to the delivery of Telus’ evolving services. In a very small amount of cases Telus will pull copper out of some conduit in order to push fibre through, where no other options exist. That Telus states publicly that using continuous copper – a regular telephone line – is stepping back in time is absolutely wrong. OR use of copper thrusts Telus into the dark ages only when we use it, but not when they use it. Hmmm.

    Our CRTC submission is absolutely clear. We said that we would take copper how-is, where-is. How does that simple request – which is the point in question in its entirety – translate into Telus pulling out fibre to put back in copper? Answer – it doesn’t.

    Pulling copper out, costing Telus millions: complete, 100% baloney.

    What Telus does not mention is that access to this copper wire for companies such as ours is normal in Ontario, Quebec, The Territiories, and all states in the U.S. Telus is seemingly almost singular in its inability to accommodate competitors such as us, yet that that is the norm throughout most of North America Not only is Telus wrong about our request being ‘unworkable’, but The Internet Centre was providing such DSL services two years before Telus got into the broadband Internet business using the same technology that Telus now uses, and we again want to use. Another Hmmm.

    I will agree that Telus does provide excellent wholesale bandwidth – we buy and resell a lot of it, and Telus’ overall service quality is superb. HOWEVER, we want to provide a much higher broadband Symmetrical service thoughout Alberta – a service Telus does not provide to us as a wholesale product. We believe that with the advent of a hugely capable network – the Supernet – high definition Video conferencing, among other services that us bidirectional high bandwidth, is possible, practical and desirable, reduces travel, increases dialogue without distance being a barrier and has therefore environmental and security aspects that are well met if we can implement this technology. We are of course very pleased that the Supernet is Net Neutral, and does not have traffic shaping as an issue on its horizon.

    Contrary to Telus’ rather silly PR piece in this Venture article, Telus has no technical or financial reason to deny us and other competitors access to copper wire lines in Alberta.

    We do remain extremely disappointed that Telus is intractable in providing a service that will allow us to connect at a minimum 180 communities in Alberta with those communities’ first broadband service.

    P.S.

    As an aside, and to clarify what one would be lead to believe that Telus is investing $600 million in Alberta, the actual PR piece of a couple of years ago says this:

    “TELUS investing $600 million to enhance broadband infrastructure

    Investment enables emerging services and expands network coverage across British Columbia, Alberta and eastern Quebec

    Vancouver, B.C. – TELUS today announced a $600 million investment to enhance its broadband network in British Columbia, Alberta and eastern Quebec by the end of 2009.

    Telus is NOT investing $600 million in upgrades only in Alberta, but is doing upgrades in a number of places, including Alberta……

    Glad to be of help.

    Graham Fletcher

    —————————————————————-
    Graham Fletcher (gfletcher@incentre.net)
    President, The Internet Centre Inc.
    4130 95 Street, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6E 6H5
    (780) 450-6787, Fax (780) 450-9143 (www.incentre.net)
    IP conference: 206.75.213.252
    Dialup, DSL, Wireless, and other Internet Services & Solutions throughout Alberta and British Columbia.
    “Where the Commercial Internet in Alberta started – Sept. 13, 1993”
    —————————————————————-

  2. rsingh says:

    EMAILED ON OCTOBER 22 BY: K.J. (Ken) Chapman

    HI – I did a Blog post response to the Telus reps in your October piece. Everyone I talked to in the industry thought it was a great article. Well done.

    Here is the link: http://ken-chapman.blogspot.com/2008/10/old-fashioned-telephone-lines-and.html

    K.J. (Ken) Chapman

  3. colleen says:

    Great article, Fil,

    Following is some additional information that may be of interest.

    While it’s true that the Supernet still has a ways to go before all Albertans are fully connected, a growing number of Alberta communities are starting to tap into the benefits thanks to a unique collaboration between three non-profit organizations and the leadership and support of Advanced Education and Technology.

    The iCCAN project (Innovative Communities Connecting and Networking) is a partnership between the Community Learning Network, Literacy Alberta, and Volunteer Alberta. This project is resolving key technical issues and ‘last mile connectivity’ barriers that exist in providing SuperNet connectivity to rural Alberta.

    With funding from Advanced Education and Technology’s Access to the Future Fund, the iCCAN project is helping these three organizations, their members, boards of directors and volunteers, to ‘plug into’ the Supernet so that videoconferencing can be used to its fullest potential.

    Over the next 18 months the iCCAN project will create new opportunities for learning and collaboration by establishing approximately 50 sites as videoconferencing hubs and helping up to 200 additional organizations get desktop videoconferencing up and running. Soon, Albertans from the four corners of the province will be able to participate in all kinds of courses and seminars via videoconference, and the instructor might be in Peace River, Oyen, Edmonton or Calgary.

    Non-profit organizations will also realize considerable business efficiencies through videoconferencing. By spending less money, time and energy on travel to attend meetings and seminars, valuable resources can be reallocated to programming and services. For example, volunteer board members in smaller communities would be able to attend ‘distant’ meetings via videoconferencing and be home for their families that same day.

    The SuperNet dream will be realized when citizens in the province’s smaller communities no longer have to ‘leave home’ to do things that Albertans in larger centres take for granted.

    The iCCAN project, with support from the Government of Alberta, will help make that happen.

    The visionaries behind this project are:
    Jann Beeston, Chair of the Board for the Community Learning Network.
    Linda Thorne, Executive Director, Community Learning Network.
    Janet Lane, Executive Director, Literacy Alberta.
    Karen Lynch, Executive Director, Volunteer Alberta