Canada can take a “broadband” lesson from Sweden

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When it comes to broadband, Sweden gives a whole new meaning to the expression “taking ownership.”

For in that country broadband users are also its owners.

It’s like assuming a mortgage, says Bill St. Arnaud, senior director for advanced networks at Ottawa-based Canarie Inc. “[Swedish] homeowners can purchase last mile infrastructure for an equivalent of US$20 a month.”

Canarie is a non-profit organization that promotes advanced Internet development in Canada. It seeks to foster widespread adoption of faster, more efficient networks, as well as innovative products, applications and services to run on these networks.

That’s quite a daunting goal, considering how far behind many Canadian cities are when it comes to hi-tech infrastructure and services. WiFi services in Toronto are currently among the most expensive in the world, St. Arnaud says, adding that we would do better if we took a page from the Swedes.

The telecom strategy in Sweden, he says, uncouples infrastructure from service. “The State provides the infrastructure, [while] each community develops local solutions to [meet] their specific needs.”

The Canarie exec likened it to the difference between renting an apartment and owning a house. “With users owning broadband and renting it out they can put in all sorts of value-added functions.” He contrasted that with the situation in a Canadian city like Toronto, which probably has the most expensive WiFi in the world.

St. Arnaud said Toronto Hydro Telecom, which provides WiFi coverage in the city, is overpricing the service. “It’s not that what we’re doing in Toronto is wrong, but Toronto Hydro Telecom has made it extremely expensive to obtain the service.”

Toronto Hydro Telecom charges $12 per metre, per month while Montreal collects only $2 and the U.S. charges 50 cents, he noted.

And in Sweden the government is really willing to put its money where its fibre is. The Swedish government has set aside US$20 billion for a “dark fibre” network. The funding pool will be used to connect main communities to neighbouring communities forming a grid across the country. St. Arnaud said Sweden’s system of state tax incentives encourages each community to develop their own systems to connect businesses, residents and institutions. The national government advises local governments on how the fibre networks should be built to fit the national IT structure.

“The cities own the conduits and they can lease it to companies, which then provide specific services the community needs.” This and competition among bidding services will bring down the cost of networking said St. Arnaud. While competitive forces in urban centres such as Toronto and Montreal may help to bring down the cost of high-speed connections, similar market forces are unsustainable in widely dispersed remote areas, according to another panelist. “

The result is a patchy and uneven service between communities,” said Diana Milenovic, senior vice-president of marketing and mobility at SaskTel the dominant telecom company in Regina, Sask. SaskTel currently provides connectivity to some 300 rural communities in Saskatchewan.

Milenovic said it’s very hard for some communities to depend on local capital and technology skills to develop and maintain networks. “One community is in quite a bind now because the local tech guru has decided to move.”

At least one expert believes that barriers to community networking in Canada are now lower.

“The technology has become less expensive here,” said Stefan Dubowski, editor of Decima’s Telemanagement, a journal dedicated to Canadian business communications technology. He said whereas [previously] the business proposition for building a network in a remote area was not there, today the situation is different.

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