Small town broadband pilot may spark big benefits

Two major players in the Canadian telecom industry have teamed up to provide broadband access and high-speed Web connectivity to a small northern Ontario town, which the companies say would open the door to unlimited socio-economic opportunities for the community.

Both Nortel Networks and Bell Canada have invested in setting up a wireless mesh network in Chapleau, Ont., a town of 3,000 residents located 320 kilometres northeast of Sault Ste. Marie. This infrastructure will turn the whole town into one big hotspot for Internet access anywhere.

Dubbed Project Chapleau, the new wireless mesh network was officially switched on recently at a formal launch at the Chapleau Community Centre.

The launch was attended – physically and virtually – by town officials, Nortel CEO Bill Owens and Bell president and CEO Michael Sabia, who spoke live via video conference from Timmins, Ont. Premier Dalton McGuinty and other provincial executives provided pre-recorded messages.

Over the next 18 months, the focus of the project will be on building applications and working with the community to maximize the impact of the technology on people’s way of living, according to Owens.

He said various factors would be carefully studied, such as how breaking down the digital divide affects the community. The impact of community access to the Internet world, and of allowing the world access to community resources would also be reviewed, he said.

Town mayor Earle Freeborn described the new wireless network – the first to be established in his town – “a quantum leap” for Chapleau.

“In the last couple of years we have seen large international companies take jobs away from our community. Recognizing that we need to lead change rather than suffer the consequences, our community decided to [proactively] encourage infrastructure investment so we could build a more diversified economy,” Freeborn said.

The access to high-speed Internet and other Web-based applications offered by Project Chapleau is expected to provide residents access to greater opportunities in education, healthcare, government services and entertainment, the mayor said.

For instance, he said, through the Internet teachers would have access to a wide range of information and teaching tools to better perform their functions and enhance their knowledge. In the area of healthcare, wireless technology and other applications – courtesy of Bell and Nortel – will serve as springboards for establishing electronic health records as well as provide access to global information on health management.

High-speed Internet will also help market Chapleau globally as a tourist destination, taking advantage of its close proximity to the Chapleau Crown Game Preserve, a 700,000-hectare Crown nature preserve said to be the largest in the world.

Through Web connectivity, the capability of Chapleau to communicate with the rest of the world will be as strong as any other urbanized community, said Bell Canada’s Sabia.

“Without the tools people with creative ideas cannot flourish. This technology is really about enabling (Chapleau) to overcome, in even better ways, the barriers of distance and open up new ways of thinking about what’s possible in the world today.”

While the Bell-Nortel joint venture is expected to rake in huge benefits for the Chapleau community and its surrounding areas, an analyst at Info-Tech Research Group ponders the potential business benefits this brings to the two telecom giants.

Nortel’s wireless mesh network is a new technology that the company is trying to push, said George Goodall, research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research.

“I think Nortel is [essentially] looking for anchored tenants to really get those first big consumers – almost like a proof of concept of what the technology can do. For them [Project Chapleau] is great marketing.”

According to those spearheading the proejct, Chapleau’s flat geographic topography – with a street network that’s primarily in a grid pattern – makes it suitable for a wireless mesh network.

As for Bell, Goodall believes the project will provide a good market study for the possibility of establishing pure wireless connectivity in remote areas.

Part of Bell’s mandate as telecom carrier is to serve northern Ontario and all of Canada’s remote communities, and the cost of wiring communities is expensive. With Project Chapleau, Bell may be looking at the possibility of taking any remote community, wiring one central hub and then running the rest of the services over some kind of mesh topology. Such a scenario, if successful, would remove the need for cable and fibre in remote communities, said the analyst.

“I think it’s a very compelling case. Once this wireless mesh network is in place, is it feasible, then, for Chapleau to rip up all of their copper? All of a sudden, the economics start to make sense from that perspective.”

However, Goodall stressed it is important for both Bell and Nortel to conduct a thorough study on the socio-economic impact of the project to validate the feasibility of such a business case.

“This is a real-world experiment,” he said, adding that the Chapleau project could be viewed as “the lab rats of what is possible with wireless community.”

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