Networking boosts Maritime economies

The Maritime provinces are quite possibly one of the last areas in Canada one thinks of when a discussion on the high-tech centres of the country begins. Stereotypical as it is, the average person likely has visions of fishermen, schooners and Stompin’ Tom Connors running rampant in their brains instead of LANs, dark fibre and telecommunications gateways.

But due to government initiatives and the cooperation of the networking and telecommunications industries (both locally and North America-wide), the Maritimes have successfully created a thriving communications and networking community.

According to Bill St. Arnaud, senior director, network projects, at Ottawa-based CANARIE Inc., there are not a lot of networking and telecommunications companies located in the Maritimes. And Keith Murray, a spokesperson for the Innovation of Science and Technology, a division of the Government of New Brunswick, notes that the IT community in general has grown from nothing to more than 6,000 IT professionals in the field in New Brunswick alone in the last few years. Besides the big telecommunications and cable companies, the strongest area on the East Coast is in smaller upstart companies specializing in LANs.

“I think the biggest challenge in the Maritimes is the small number of players and the size of the large incumbents, and the dominance of the large incumbents,” St. Arnaud said. “And I think there’s less competition out there than in Central Canada, and that’s one of the challenges facing government and industry out there – to entice and promote more competitive players.”

New Brunswick has evolved from a very small number of companies 10 years ago to over 290 IT companies in the province, Murray said. Of course, New Brunswick’s claim to fame in the area of telecommunications is how it has strived to attract call centres to the province. The call centre industry was yet to be born in 1990, but there are approximately 85 call centres in the province now employing over 10,000 people. According to Murray, the knowledge industry in New Brunswick is valued at approximately $500 million.

“It’s become a huge part of our economy,” Murray said. New Brunswick also has two fibre optic rings around the province and according to Leonard Weeks, project executive, information technology and knowledge industry, Business New Brunswick, a department in the provincial government, the province probably claims the title of most wired jurisdiction in the world.

Weeks pointed out that every telephone is digital, every school has Internet access and will have multiple choices for digital television and cable services by the end of the year. There are also 225 community Internet access sites scattered throughout the province.

“There isn’t anywhere in this province where you’re more than 15 minutes from on-line computer access,” Murray said.

Cambridge, Ont.-based COM DEV International Ltd., a designer, manufacturer and distributor of wireless infrastructure and a designer and manufacturer of space satellite hardware, maintains its principle wireless manufacturing plant in Moncton, N.B., and has done so for 10 years. On January 12, COM DEV received a $1.15 million forgivable loan from the Government of New Brunswick to assist the company in a major expansion that will add approximately 200 more jobs to the facility. There are currently 600 employees at the Moncton plant.

“In this particular case, the premier, when he made the announcement, made it quite clear that while this benefits COM DEV, he’s in fact investing in training New Brunswickers, and so if it didn’t work out at COM DEV, the people will still have the skills to take somewhere else,” said Ron Holdway, vice-president, corporate communications, at COM DEV. He noted that the province is always struggling to move out of the cyclical resource-based sector where it has been for years and to diversify the economy. The biggest drawback to having a location in the Maritimes is the high cost of airfare to get to and from the facility, he said.

Another growing technological area in the Maritimes is Halifax, N.S., which maintains strong partnerships with the local colleges and universities, St. Arnaud said. Prince Edward Island has very small networking and telecommunications industries. And in Newfoundland, the biggest challenge is a lack of competition, with the only provider being Aliant Inc.

Like in any other part of the country, networking and telecommunications are growth areas and there is indeed a growing number of jobs for skilled professionals in those areas, St. Arnaud said.

“The attraction of telecom is it means that jobs can be located in the Maritimes, that people don’t have to move away to get the high-paying high-tech jobs,” St. Arnaud said. “And I think there’s wide support for development of these community fibre networks [and] condominium fibre networks, which will really make the Maritimes very attractive for businesses.”

According to Weeks, the number of jobs in the knowledge industry has even surpassed the fishing and agriculture industries.

“So [the technology industry] is a major, major, major piece of the economy,” New Brunswick government’s Murray said. “It’s equated to the total cash receipts from primary fishing and primary agriculture.…It’s growing at 30 per cent a year. It is our economy. It’s not just an impact on the economy. It’s our province’s future economy.”