Aliant promises broadband for all Prince Edward Islanders

As Prince Edward Island announces a plan to bring broadband to all of its communities, U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama is promising to do the same for our neighbours to the south.

Bell Aliant Regional Communications LP announced this week it has reached a “development agreement” to bring broadband services to “every community” in Prince Edward Island. The provincial government estimates one in four islanders have no broadband access.

Under the agreement, Aliant agreed to spend $8.2 million, with no government funding, to bring broadband access for any Islander who wants it. The “majority of expansion” will be “completed by 2009,” the company said.

Aliant plans to provide the service using Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) technology with wireless backhaul, said Bruce Howatt, Aliant’s vice-president for Prince Edward Island.

“It will be mainly wireline high speed based on DSL and there will be a wireless backhaul component to it,” he said. “This expansion will allow us to provide high speed services in every community in Prince Edward Island”

Meanwhile, as Obama prepares to take the reigns of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government from President George W. Bush, a lobbyist suggests the economic crisis may make it difficult for Obama to fulfill a key campaign pledge.

In order to bring broadband service to every American community, the government will need to fund wireless buildup, said Pete Leon, vice-president of Dow Lohnes Government Strategies LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based lobby firm.

“I think it’s possible,” Leon said. “It’s more a question of how the administration is going to prioritize it in the fiscal crisis the U.S. government faces.”

Obama and Vice President Elect Joe Biden said during the campaign they “believe” they can get “true broadband to every community in America.”

Obama’s staff did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Network World Canada, though his campaign manager, David Plouffe, asked a reporter to buy a T-Shirt for $30 to help pay off campaign debt.

In a policy paper, Obama said he would change the Universal Service Fund, which is currently overseen by the Federal Communications Commission and requires long-distance carriers to subsidize telecom services for high-cost areas, low-income customers, schools and libraries.

In the paper, dubbed Connecting and Empowering All Americans Through Technology and Innovation, Obama said he will change the Universal Service Fund from “from one that supports voice communications to one that supports affordable broadband, with a specific focus on reaching previously un-served communities.”

Leon noted there have been “significant changes to the Rural Utility Service Program,” which includes the Broadband Access Loan Program and is run by the US Department of Agriculture.

In the past, Leon noted, they could only subsidize companies to build broadband where there was demand

“That’s not what Congress wanted,” he said. “Congress wanted (broadband) where it wasn’t.” He added despite the joint venture between Sprint-Nextel and Clearwire Corp., “Nobody seems to be making a massive effort” to deploy WiMAX.

“You are going to have to go wireless for a large portion of the physical land mass of the United States,” he said, adding some wireline technologies are quite new.

“Some of the technology has only been on the market three or four years,” he said. “The technology for rural on the wireline side has yet to catch up.”

In Prince Edward Island, Aliant needs to make a “huge capital investment” to provide DSL for all communities, Howatt said.

“Rural broadband is an economic challenge regardless of where you live,” he said. “The payback is much longer.”

He added recent innovations are making broadband Internet less expensive.

“The wireless backhaul piece will allow us to deploy it more efficiently than running fibre cable everywhere.”

In cases where Aliant will not be able to get DSL to a customer, the carrier “will work with them individually to provide high speed service,” Howatt said.

Other broadband Internet projects in Canada have received funding from various levels of government. For example, the Ontario government’s Rural Connections Broadband program provided $480,000 to a project using pre-WiMAX fixed wireless technology.

And last month, the TextKativik Regional Government (KRG) in northern Quebec announced it signed up for satellite service with Telesat in a project funded by the National Satellite Initiative, Villages branch