Future Fibre: Municipal Internet

In many communities active municipal broadband participation is required

As we continue our exploration of community based and do it yourself internet providers, a clear and recurring trend is the essential role of municipal government. While wireless internet service providers (WISPs) may find it possible to remain entirely independent, running fibre optic cable inevitably requires some kind of local approval, authorization, or at the very least support.

This is true for a range of reasons, but the largest may be the growing desire to recognize Internet infrastructure as public infrastructure. This does not necessarily mean that the Internet provider is itself owned by the municipality. Rather it could entail the municipality playing a supportive role or helping to fund connectivity.

However given what we’ve covered so far, it would be good to do a quick overview of some municipal owned infrastructure, especially given the following discussion I had on TVO last week:

The responses I’ve received following this segment have been encouraging, with most coming from other people who live in rural or remote communities.

Whenever I talk about or publish media that promotes community Internet initiatives, there is always a positive response, as this is an important issue for a lot of people. So much so, that once a solution is found, the joy is such, that the success must be shared and celebrated.

As has been the case with the town of Olds, Alberta.

This Alberta community is running O-Net, their very own community-owned and operated Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network, and setting a high bar for municipal Internet utilities around the world for over six years now. Municipally-based broadband has really put Olds on the map.
The town, located roughly 90 kilometers north of Calgary, has even started to attract tech-savvy entrepreneurs away from its big city neighbour. And no wonder, as Olds boasts service fees that are half that of Calgary’s major telecom providers, offering super fast gigabit for as little as $57 per month. For comparison’s sake, Bell and Rogers offer slower services that average between $115 to $226 a month.
O-Net’s services also expand beyond just Internet, now including phone and IPTV services (movies on demand with stop and play features). In Olds, this subscriber-friendly, small-scale network is the clear choice, and an example to be followed by others.
This Internet innovation has done a lot to boost community wellness and economic prosperity in the town of Olds. Through their Internet, voice, and TV self-sufficiency, Olds has been able to funnel million of dollars in funds back into its own community.

O-Net claims to be the first in Canada, and given that they started in 2011 they’re probably right. This initiative has helped raise the profile of the town, and they provide free WiFi at quite a few locations throughout Olds.

The following video provides more detail as to how O-Net was established and run. However this video makes a big mistake at the outset, arguing that O-Net was done without government funds, which is entirely incorrect. O-Net received support from the Alberta provincial government and their local municipality. O-Net is owned by a non-profit which is owned and controlled by community members.

They’re a great success story, but are certainly not the only one. There’s a growing number of municipalities who are recognizing the value of community owned infrastructure.

For example in Coquitlam BC, the city built the Coquitlam Optical Network Corporation (QNet), not so much to deliver services to residents, but rather to create publicly owned fibre infrastructure that other companies could then use to deliver services to residents. QNet uses the fibre optic network for municipal needs, and then leases surplus capacity to telecom carriers and businesses.

In the following interview, QNet general manager Rick Adams talks about why QNet was started, but more importantly why open Internet exchanges were an important inspiration for their work.

We’ll elaborate on the value and role of open Internet exchanges in a future issue, but they’re a key ingredient for the success of municipal or community owned Internet.

In Northern Ontario, municipally owned telecom providers in Thunder Bay and Sudbury have worked with municipally owned energy utilities to run fibre optic cables and then make those available either directly to consumers or via other service providers.

Similarly Lakeland Networks is owned by 5 municipalities in Muskoka to help develop and deliver fibre optic connectivity in the region. Here’s a video they produced that makes the case for investing in fibre (rather than wireless):

Although like any community based provider, Lakeland Networks has faced their fair share of setbacks. Including one that is a recurring issue we’ve encountered in our research, the cost, logistics, and often hassle of using other people’s poles to run the fibre:

He noted installing fibre-optic internet cable on pre-existing hydro poles across Muskoka, which are owned by a variety of different companies, was the least expensive option.
Yet telecommunications companies are spending tens of thousands of dollars on engineering drawings, load and elevation studies and applications to secure approvals for aerial installation projects, while the companies that own the poles could still deny use or impose cost-prohibitive conditions.
Conditions, or “make-readies,” could include the reorganization of existing power lines or complete pole replacement.
According to Gibson, a pole replacement could cost $10,000 to $20,000 per pole.
“That’s the kicker,” he said. “And along Highway 118, there was a lot of make-readies.”
He noted the costs have made some projects across Muskoka financially nonviable.
“It definitely is an issue in every route we take. And what we end up doing is trying to mitigate the costs as best we can to provide services,” he said. “A lot of the poles in this area are older poles. And standards continuously change.”
Many poles, he said, met older standards and could continue to stand, but additions or changes to those poles would trigger modern standard requirements.
“It’s really up to the pole owner, their guidelines and their standards,” he said. “It can still be a surprise to us.”
As a result, he says the company completed some underground trench installations, rather than aerial installations.
Roughly 20 per cent of Lakeland Networks installations are now underground.
But Gibson noted thick bedrock made it difficult to do widespread trench installations, which is why it was not a viable alternative for Highway 118 East.

This is not atypical in many rural communities. The existing pole infrastructure is old, and the geography is rocky making burying cables difficult.

In this context public policy can and should play an important role, or at least helping to share the costs of replacing those poles. They may seem like small things, but pole infrastructure is a key part of our communications and energy systems.

As we move forward with this series we’re trying to build a set of policy recommendations and best practices that can be shared with municipalities and communities who want to make their own Internet.

On that note, check out this list of recommendations that Scott McDonald sent to me as part of a rant he sent to his Member of Parliament Chrystia Freeland

(1) provide mandatory Canadian-wide telco SLA's governing service quality, anti-throttling/neutral availability of competitive streaming services, packet-loss per hour, annual outage trending, etc.
(2) provide mandatory Canadian-wide service reporting from ISP to customer attached to the monthly invoice that shows all service metrics (performance, avg throughput per hour, QoS, how many reboots, how many service calls, hours spent troubleshooting)
(3) make those performance numbers from (2) available for national reports to the CRTC and more importantly the public
(4) de-couple the company/companies building infrastructure from providing the service to eliminate the conflict of interest of stifling other smaller service providers
(5) de-couple the company/companies providing service (internet, broadcast, etc.) from owning content to eliminate the conflict of interest of ISP's stifling or throttling other streaming providers or content creators
(6) mandate that ISP's email documented contracts of the service plans negotiated on the phone for a paper-trail just like every other contract in the world of commerce is done.
(7) create a gov-funded rural access startup tournament called SPARK with the prize being a multi-year gov contract for the team that best delivers a new technical, fully-GA solution (satellite constellation, mesh-net, inverted-VLF-to-EHF spectrum, etc.) for remote regional access to the internet and televise the whole competition online & with CBC to tap in Canadian's thirst for innovation and entrepreneurship.

What do you think?

“Future Fibre” is a recurring series in the Metaviews newsletter where we share some of the research, other models, news, and ideas around community based connectivity.
The series is sponsored by our friends at EasyDNS:

I’ve been an EasyDNS customer for almost 20 years (and I know a number of you are as well based on my recommendation). Mark Jeftovic the co-founder and CEO is a long time friend and Metaviews subscriber. EasyDNS is one of the best service providers on the Internet, and Mark ensures his customers have the benefits of the latest and most secure technology.

Mark also writes a smart newsletter called #AxisofEasy and has just published a fascinating book called “Unassailable” which will be featured in an upcoming newsletter (and would have independent of this sponsorship). I’m thrilled that Mark shares my belief in the potential for micro-ISPs and is sponsoring this series as a result.

And here’s the bonus video for today’s issue:

Jesse Hirsh

Jesse Hirsh