SUNDRE — Council recently heard that preliminary work the municipality previously invested in researching the feasibility of fibre optics in town played an “integral” role in eventually persuading a private, for-profit company’s decision to pick up the reins.
Providing the municipality’s new council with a recap on the years-long pursuit of developing high-speed internet infrastructure, Jon Allan, economic development officer, said during a council meeting last month that the expense incurred by the town on feasibility and marketability studies made a compelling case that helped convince Xplornet Communications Inc. to commit to deploying broadband service in the community.
“The work that we did between 2015 and 2018 was integral to the success that we have found ourselves with today,” said Allan.
“Between 2015 and 2018, we pursued an option that would have seen an infrastructure owned by the public, by the Town of Sundre. We wouldn’t have been an operator — that wasn’t what we were ever originally seeking to do, but we would have owned the infrastructure,” he said.
“And there was a significant amount of work that went into that because of the nature and complexity of that type of project. Things such as conducting economic feasibility analyses, conduit surveys underground, understanding business models, and of course the market research project that we conducted with Banister Research in 2017,” he said.
That consultation process — which with more than 600 responses involved far higher participation from local ratepayers than other public engagements — revealed substantial support among residents and businesses keen to connect with the 21st century while generating an additional revenue stream that would offset dependency on taxes. At the time, 75 per cent of respondents supported the municipality pursuing the publicly owned model, while 46 per cent favoured a private model approach.
The culmination of all the municipality’s preliminary work resulted in the creation of a framework to more clearly understand what the project would have entailed, said Allan.
However, as other capital projects weighed heavily in the budget planning process — namely the upgrade to the wastewater treatment facility which at the time remained an uncertain and potentially massive expense — the council of the day opted to go in a different direction by instead attempting to entice a private provider, he said.
“Fortunately, the work that we had done previously, was actually integral to helping recruit a private provider,” he said. “Because we had done the leg work and we had shown them that the risk, based on the market research, was going to be quite low since there was such a high (forecasted) demand for the service once it would have been deployed.”
The private, for-profit company received $1.8 million from the Canadian taxpayer courtesy of a grant from the federal government, which over the past several years has in partnerships with the public and private sectors been investing billions of dollars country-wide toward rolling out high-speed internet in remote and rural areas.
And the municipality had also invested funds amounting close to $100,000 investigating the potential to deploy a publicly-owned broadband network.
“Between 2015 and 2017, a little over $34,000 was spent on Taylor Warwick Consulting to help the Town of Sundre complete an economic feasibility analysis on the possibility of deploying a fibre optic network,” said Allan, adding a further $45,000 was spent on conducting the market research to determine if there was adequate community demand for fibre optically improved telecommunications services with. And shy of $5,000 was spent on miscellaneous expenses as well, he said.
“We also contracted O-Net to complete an underground survey of the abandoned conduit in the southwest area of town to determine its usability,” he said.
“In summary, around $90,000 was spent in the process of preparing for the deployment of a fibre optic network.”
Although the municipality will not earn any revenue despite the tens of thousands of dollars spent studying the project’s feasibility, residents and businesses are expected to by the end of the year have access to minimum speeds of 50 mbps download and 10 mbps upload.
While the company has declined to disclose the Sundre project's cost for competitive reasons, it outlined its commitment to invest $500 million by 2025 to deploy state-of-the-art scalable fibre and 5G fixed wireless technology across the country to meet the needs of rural Canadians today and in the future.
The company recently announced that the first phase should be done early this summer, with the rest of the network going live by the end of the year.
Following Allan's presentation, Coun. Jaime Marr wanted to know why high-speed internet has for so many years been considered a priority.
Describing an identified trend called Nielsen’s Law that has since the dawning days of the internet determined that demand for data, and by extension the corresponding need for increased bandwidth capacity, doubles roughly every two years, Allan said fibre optic broadband delivers a near-infinite amount of bandwidth potential.
“We knew that fibre-to-the-premise was one of the most important ways that we could achieve the goal of being future-ready,” he said, adding high-speed internet is coveted not only by residents who for example want to stream online content, but especially the commercial sector as well as medical practices in a time when business is increasingly conducted online.
Expressing enthusiasm for the project, Coun. Owen Petersen asked Allan to shed light on the recently announced federal government’s grant funding to the tune of $1.8 million.
“Is that just going to Xplornet — so, none of that money goes to us?” asked Petersen.
“Correct. We are not paying anything for (the construction of) this project. So, the money is in its entirety going to Xplornet,” said Allan, adding he is not privy to all of the project’s behind-the-scenes details that are protected by propriety rights and thus remain confidential.
Expressing gratitude for Allan’s ongoing advocacy for broadband alongside his council colleagues, Coun. Paul Isaac said the project has been challenging, and told the economic development officer to laughter from the council chamber, “I see that your hair is growing white.”
Mayor Richard Warnock also praised Allan’s efforts, and said the multi-million-dollar project is an amazing development for the municipality.
“From the few business owners that I’ve spoken to, if the residents are excited, they are 10 times as excited,” the mayor said. “We appreciate you sticking with it.”
The mayor also recognized the contribution of $40 million to Alberta from the federal government to help roll-out high speed internet to remote and rural parts of the province as part of a nation-wide initiative.
“We were very fortunate to get our little piece of that pie with the $1.8 million,” said Warnock.
For his part, Allan said that he not only was just doing his job, but added that as a Sundre resident who recently started a business, he too will benefit from broadband.
“I’m invested in this community and I had as much interest to gain personally from it,” he said, expressing pride for playing a part in helping to make the project a reality.
Council went on to unanimously approve Allan’s report for information.