The Need for Speed
June 17, 2014
We’ve been hearing about rural broadband for more than a decade. So where is it?
Imagine what would happen if Ontario Hydro or Bell Canada decided some parts of the region were too remote or difficult, or too sparsely populated, to warrant service. There would be outrage. Yet that very situation exists in numerous areas across Headwaters when it comes to high speed Internet.
Has broadband become an essential human service, like electricity and telephone?
Even more, has it become a human right? The United Nations thinks so. In May, 2011, a U.N. commission issued a report declaring broadband access a basic human right, comparable to health care, shelter and food.
There is now hardly a business of any sort, from home-based to corporate giant that is not Internet dependent. In the workforce, manufacturing jobs are being replaced by knowledge workers – many online. Medicine is heading toward online access to specialists and in-home monitoring, especially important to an aging population. Distance learning has opened up enormous educational options for people of all ages. And two-way video, such as Skype, is revolutionizing everyday communication.
Furthermore, emerging technologies, such as 3D printing, are vastly increasing the volume of data being transmitted at any given moment around the globe. A recent study found that iPhone 5 users typically transfer four times as much data as iPhone 3 users, and cellular equipment makers anticipate an average transfer volume of 1 gigabyte per customer per day by 2020. Then there’s the so called “Internet of Things,” where everything from cars to refrigerators to baby monitors to door locks are being hooked up to the web. An estimated 26 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2020.
But the Internet revolution goes beyond even those practical considerations. In No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, published this spring, author Glenn Greenwald describes how deeply the Internet penetrates our collective psyches:
“Especially for the younger generation, the Internet is not some standalone, separate domain where a few of life’s functions are carried out. It is not merely our post office and our telephone. Rather, it is the epicentre of our world, the place where virtually everything is done. It is where friends are made, where books and films are chosen, where political activism is organized, where the most private data is created and stored. It is where we develop and express our very personality and sense of self.”
Nevertheless, for many people in Headwaters, the potential of the Internet remains more futuristic fantasy than daily reality. While some preparations are underway to meet the exponentially expanding digital demands, there is still a very long way to go.
A Wishbone and a Backbone
At the national level, politicians have been playing an on-again-off-again game with broadband since it was first raised as a federal priority by then industry minister John Manley in 2000. In the ensuing years the issue has moved repeatedly from political priority to political wilderness, only to be raised again a few years later. Successive regimes have dribbled money at the development of broadband – most recently a $305-million, five-year commitment in the February 2014 budget – but serious investment in a national network has remained elusive. Meanwhile, rural Canadians continue to face high prices and poor service.
Dufferin County warden and Melancthon Township mayor Bill Hill has no illusions about the state of Internet access in the region. “Rural Ontario is not serviced well with Internet,” he says. “There are third-world countries that have better access than Southwestern Ontario.”
Hill represents Dufferin at the Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus. The group includes upper-tier municipalities covering an area from Dufferin to Windsor, including Wellington. One of their key initiatives is something called SWIFT, or South Western Integrated Fibre Technology, essentially developing a fibre optic network that would serve the whole region.
A 2013 Broadband Feasibility Study conducted by the caucus identified lack of choice, high prices, poor service and little competition as problems across the region, and recommended construction of the SWIFT network as a solution. The project would be structured as a public/private partnership and operated as a not-for-profit share corporation, with public sector oversight of private operations. Hill says the public money is to “ensure there is good rural accessibility,” and to keep a lid on costs for users. “The target is $100 per month.”
The proposed network will serve 14 counties in the region, including sparsely populated rural areas, with as few as four people per square kilometre. Of a total cost currently estimated at $243.5 million, municipalities would shoulder $20 million and private partners would put up $61 million, leaving investments of $81 million each for the province and Ottawa. An $81-million contribution by the feds would be more than a quarter of their entire five-year commitment to broadband for the whole country.
The Western Caucus is not breaking new ground – the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus is well ahead of them. With a total investment of $170 million, the Eastern Caucus is on track to complete development of EORN, or the Eastern Ontario Regional Network, this year.
Ironically, one of the reasons for the comparative delay in the Western Caucus is because in the east there wasn’t much existing competition, making implementation simpler. In the west, there are more than 20 different private providers, so logistics become complicated.
Warden Hill cites Toyota’s massive operation at Woodstock, Ontario, as an illustration of why expansion of digital infrastructure is so important. To obtain contracts to supply the Toyota plant, bidders must be able to demonstrate their ability to furnish robust, lightning-speed digital communication suitable for operation within Toyota’s own highly advanced networks. No technology? No contract.
Led by Grey County, the SWIFT project is currently in the business plan development stage. If all goes according to schedule, the network will be operational by 2019.
Another organization, the Southwest Economic Alliance, is working to support the wardens’ efforts. Ron Munro, Dufferin’s representative on SWEA, says that while the wardens are responsible for policy, SWEA deals with on-the-ground implementation. Of the overall project, he says, “It’s no different than a hundred years ago when we needed roads. The cost was beyond private enterprise, and needed public money. But there was a benefit, in that once you had roads, people anywhere could contribute to the economy.”
SWEA is contributing to the SWIFT business plan by undertaking detailed surveys in each county using hired staff who will interview individuals, businesses and institutions about their capacity requirements and gaps. “We’re going to get a whole bunch of those to paint the picture,” Munro says, though from his experience as project lead for Dufferin.biz, the county’s economic development website, he has some idea what the surveys will show. “Companies are paying a fortune and still not getting very good service,” he says. “Some of the manufacturers are paying $25,000 to $30,000 a year.”
Munro stresses the urgency of getting on with the system development. He’s heard that some businesses have left Owen Sound for Stratford in pursuit of higher speed service, and he’s worried some Orangeville companies are likewise becoming itchy.
Dial Me Up, Scotty
Brrrrrrr. Beep beep beep. Warble warble. Boing, boing, boing. Ffffffffff.
Remember that? A dial-up modem connecting over a phone line to the Internet, circa 1997.
For a significant chunk of Town of Mono residents – some say as many as 65 per cent – it’s still an everyday reality. But a grassroots effort is underway there to develop a local, community-owned high speed network.
Mono Sustainability Advisory Committee members Paul Lansing and Craig Wilson have been leading the charge.
Mono has proven to be a challenge when it comes to providing high speed, in large part because its uneven topography and heavy tree cover make delivery of wireless signals difficult or impossible. Similar complications exist in sections of Mulmur and Caledon.
While there is a tendency to view the need for high speed through the needs of business, Lansing and Wilson stress the wider implications. Broadband is also “part of the social infrastructure,” says Wilson. “In two or three years the Internet will be essential in your life, whether it’s health care or education or social services or business.”
As a result, they see the widespread delivery of broadband to Mono as critical to ensuring the town remains a desirable location with a prosperous rural economy into the future.
MSAC has issued two requests for proposals aimed at laying the groundwork for a community-owned “ultra” high speed network, using fibre optic and wireless technology. The goal is a service that provides superior value to that of major name competitors, while feeding any profits back into the community, all accomplished without a tax increase. Ultimately, says Wilson, the committee would like to achieve “100 per cent penetration of very high speed Internet for every business and residence located in Mono.”
Lansing says the first RFP is for “a market study which will assess what people want, and at what price.” In addition to Internet, there is potential to provide telephone, television and other services as well. Several firms have responded to the RFP and the committee is in the process of selecting one to recommend to Mono council for approval.
The second RFP is for network design assistance and the selection of appropriate technology to serve the identified needs. It will also have to address the complex topography and thinly spread population. As for speed, Lansing says, “minimum 10 megabits per second, up to 1 gigabit.” Four firms have responded to the second RFP.
The concept isn’t new. In the 20th century, rural communities across North America established co-operatives to supply electricity. And last year, Olds, Alberta, population 8,500, became “the first ‘gig town’ in Canada,” with the opening of its community-owned fibre optic network called O-Net. A project of the non-profit Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development, the network offers blazing fast speed for as little as $57 a month. An O-Net official is quoted as saying, “Because we’re a community-owned project, we get to balance out profitability versus what’s best for the community.”
O-Net’s speed is the same as that of Google Fiber, a high-profile pilot project in densely populated Kansas City, and it far exceeds that available in most other major urban centres. Google claims that, among other things, it allows the streaming of five high-definition movies at the same time.
Community leaders in Olds saw the $14-million network as a necessity not only for attracting new business, but also for keeping the businesses they already had.
Back in Mono, Lansing and Wilson have an ambitious schedule, and say they are aiming for “sometime in early 2016 for delivery of service into someone’s house.”
This would place them three years ahead of the SWIFT project, though Warden Hill doesn’t see any conflict between the two initiatives. He explains that both are non-profit and, by design, SWIFT will permit existing infrastructure to be integrated into the broader network. Wilson emphasizes the Mono project is all about “the last mile.” While the wardens are working on the backbone of the system, or superhighway, he says, “our effort is specifically, once you’re off the highway, to get you home.”
While in Dufferin and Erin the story is about what is going on, in Caledon it’s about what isn’t.
Excluded from rural broadband funding programs by virtue of its location within urban Peel Region and the GTA, Caledon nonetheless has comparatively remote, sparsely populated patches. Mapping undertaken by the province in 2011 particularly identified a large swath along the northern boundary of the town as an “unserved broadband area.”
Manager of economic development Norm Lingard says the Town is in the early stages of preparing the terms of reference for a gap analysis, which they hope to have completed this fall. At this stage, he says, “It’s unclear what telecommunication infrastructure exists,” so it’s impossible to speculate on what kind of strategy might be employed.
Economic development officer Ben Roberts highlights another wrinkle. Several years ago Caledon Hydro was sold off. “When a municipality has its own hydro,” he says, “it’s easier to use the poles for other purposes. Now if we want to use the poles, there will be a fee.”
Though the gap analysis should provide a better understanding of needs, Lingard still sees a major barrier – money. “The challenge is getting funding,” he says. When broadband projects have been undertaken in other locations, “the municipality makes a significant capital investment.” The willingness of Caledon residents, many of whom already have high speed Internet, to support the required tax increase seems doubtful.
As for upper levels of government coming to the rescue, Roberts says, “We keep looking at funding opportunities, but being within the GTA is sometimes a disadvantage.”
Real Estate Slow to Download?
Another factor relates to the pocketbook of all country property owners, whether they use the Internet or not. Does lack of high speed mean your property value takes a hit?
Local realtor Patrick Bogert, who handles country property, says Internet access is a “question every single time we show a house.” As for the level of importance placed on high speed, Bogert says, “It depends on the buyer. For example, if it’s a couple retiring, sometimes it doesn’t make much difference to them. However, if it’s a weekend place for professionals, having decent Internet service has to be taken into account.” Electronics-dependent children in the household can also make high speed a must-have.
Though so far Bogert has never had a sale fall through because of a lack of high speed, he says he knows others who have. He is mystified at the poor reach of Internet service in the region generally: “It’s not the boonies here. I just can’t understand why it hasn’t been sorted out. People expect it.” And among his buyers, it’s not just young people who are tethered to their electronic gadgetry: “Everybody’s doing it. There are lots of seniors on Facebook.”
What About the Rest of Us?
Even those of us who feel secure about the high speed Internet we already have may be ill-equipped for what’s around the digital corner. Copper telephone lines can handle only so much data, so it won’t be long until those using DSL find themselves in the same boat as those who are on dial-up now.
While cable and some other approaches have demonstrated it’s technically feasible to achieve speed similar to fibre optic, none have so far been able to deliver it in widespread, real-world applications. As Mono’s Craig Wilson says, “Unlike the telephone – a technology that has remained basically unchanged for a century – with the Internet there is radical evolution. There’s a continuous draw to reinvent the service delivered to end users, from dial-up to DSL to ultra high speed.”
Ron Munro puts it more succinctly: “In 15 years, who the hell knows, but if we don’t do this soon, we’ll be so far behind.”
High Speed and the Country Entrepreneur
David Neale and Brad Gosse operate Internet-based businesses from their high-speed-challenged homes in the Town of Mono.
Neale, an active Air Canada pilot, is a smart man who spotted a niche and started Crewsware.com 13 years ago. The website delivers personalized scheduling for Air Canada pilots and flight attendants travelling around the globe, allowing them to connect with each other as they do. Subscribers to the service include about 85 per cent of Air Canada’s pilots, and 20 per cent of its flight attendants. Neale says the business generates annual revenues in the “high six digits.”
Brad Gosse is the creator of hundreds of popular marketing and digital products for business owners. His self-published book, Chronic Marketer, cracked Amazon’s Top 40 list in 2012. The enterprise employs two people in the Philippines full time, a third in the United Kingdom, and a fourth in the United States. Given the vast distances, Gosse’s entire operation exists only online.
Both Neale and Gosse have had to deal with an ongoing series of obstacles simply to maintain what most urban Headwaters residents take for granted: reliable, robust Internet connectivity.
They have both tried a variety of different delivery methods. Satellite service, which at one time was touted as the solution for rural residents, proved to be unacceptable due to slow speeds and inherent lag times. Neale, who uploads data to a server he owns in a high security facility in Miami, says, “The signal had to travel 36,000 kilometres to the satellite, then back to earth. Our server would constantly time out and drop the connection.” Brad Gosse says, “I tried satellite for two days. It was useless.”
Other approaches have also come and gone. The best solution to date was provided by a small company serving rural customers, but before long the company got bought out by a bigger provider and shut down. Neale and Gosse were back to square one.
Ironically, a fibre optic cable runs along Highway 10, within a kilometre or two of both their homes, and has more than enough capacity for their needs. While the cable is owned by Ontario Hydro, access is managed by Rogers Communications. Gosse says that when he and Neale approached them to ask about getting hooked up, they demanded $35,000 to run the line, plus a five-year, $1,800 a month commitment. Thinking it might be worth it to have the issue resolved once and for all, they were prepared to go ahead, but at the last minute Rogers demanded an additional $35,000 payment, and the two decided it was just too expensive.
Gosse went so far as to spend $20,000 on a 100-foot tower in his backyard, which is pointed at a WiMAX wireless signal 23 kilometres west of his house. Neale uses what he calls “a cell phone in a box” a system wired into his computer that connects via cell phone infrastructure.
Neale and Gosse acknowledge that, while their respective solutions aren’t perfect, they are getting by. The big problem now is the size of data packages available. Neale’s package is capped at 10 gigabytes per month – the most he can buy using his cell phone-based system. He consistently exceeds the limit and must pay expensive rates for overages, meaning his Internet bill runs in the range of $250 monthly. “I’m always telling my wife, ‘No YouTube videos,’” he says.
Gosse, meanwhile, deals with graphics and more data-heavy content. While the package for his tower signal system is 100 gigabytes, he regularly triples it, leading to bills in the order of $700 a month. By contrast, in urban Orangeville Wightman Telecom charges $43 a month for comparable high speed with unlimited data.
But, even that pales in comparison to many other places around the globe, some of them perhaps surprising. Romania, for example, has one of the most developed fibre optic networks in the world. There, speeds are up to a hundred times faster than here, meaning David Neale could conceivably hit his data cap within half an hour to an hour of downloading. What’s more, a typical residential customer in Romania can expect to pay about $15 Canadian a month.
It’s important to note that neither Neale nor Gosse’s volumes are especially large, and might easily be exceeded by a regular residential customer with a couple of data-hog teenagers in the house. Gosse says, “It seems like a ridiculous amount to have to spend to live in the country.”
Perhaps the most critical aspect of Neale and Gosse’s ongoing Internet dilemma is what it means for the future of their businesses. Neale says, “I can’t grow. A major American airline was interested, but I decided to put it on hold. ‘Can I do it?’ turned into a problem.”
Gosse says he is considering moving to California. Pointing out that he can run his business from anywhere in the world, he’s growing increasingly fed up. “I won’t say it’s all about Internet service,” he says. “There are other factors, like the winters here, but the constant aggravation of Internet service could become the deciding thing.”
A Bevy of Buzzwords
Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus
Southwest Economic Alliance
South Western Integrated Fibre Technology
A transmission medium that allows many signals to be transmitted simultaneously at high speeds.
A generic term that usually refers to any Internet service faster than dial-up.
The slowest option for Internet connection, dial-up is a method that employs analogue audio frequency signals. It requires no infrastructure other than existing telephone lines, making it the only option in some remote or rural areas. In most locales dial-up has been superseded by faster technologies. The United States Federal Communications Commission estimates only 3 per cent of the U.S. population was still using dial-up in 2013.
Internet access via satellite is another option for users in remote areas. However, while it is technically defined as “high speed,” transmission rates are slow compared to other technologies. As well, latency – the time it takes the signal to reach the satellite and a response to return to earth – is a significant performance limitation. Bad weather and vegetation that blocks the line of sight between the dish and the satellite can also impact performance.
Like dial-up, Digital Subscriber Line, or DSL, service uses phone lines. However, the data it transmits is digital, not analogue. It is delivered simultaneously with wired phone service on the same line. This is possible because DSL uses higher frequency bands for data. It also requires specialized equipment to be installed in the phone distribution network, meaning not all people with a land line have access to DSL. While much faster than dial-up, DSL typically does not match rates offered by cable connections.
Many urban dwellers with access to cable television also use their coaxial cable connection to receive Internet. Though speeds are typically faster than DSL, slowdowns can occur if many people in a given neighbourhood are using the system at the same time.
Sometimes referred to as “Wi-Fi on steroids,” WiMAX is a long-range wireless signal delivery system commonly used to serve rural customers, including some in the Headwaters region. Though speeds comparable to a cable connection can be achieved, most users actually receive much slower service due to such factors as topography or distance from transmission towers.
Fibre Optic Cable
Considered the gold standard for both speed and volume of data, fibre optic cable transfers data at the speed of light using glass or plastic fibres. Complex and expensive to install and operate, fibre optic cables have mostly been employed in long distance, high-demand scenarios. In recent years, however, prices have come down and the technology has begun to be used in residential applications.
The Last Mile
The final leg that delivers Internet service to customers. The term “mile” is metaphorical. The last mile is the most expensive part of a network to install and operate because there are many small connections compared to the larger backbone of the system.
Kbps, Mbps, Gbps
The speed at which data can move through a computer network is expressed in units of bits per second (bps). Equipment is typically rated using the larger units of Kbps, Mbps and Gbps:
One kilobit per second (Kbps) equals 1000 bits per second (bps).
One megabit per second (Mbps) equals 1000 Kbps or one million bps.
One gigabit per second (Gbps) equals 1000 Mbps or one million Kbps or one billion bps.
Bits are often confused with bytes. While bits are a measure of interface speed, bytes are a measure of data storage. Internet companies generally price their service packages according to volume of bytes, for example, a 100-gigabyte package is a measure of volume rather than speed. One byte is made up of 8 bits.