Broadband access by 2004, Albertans told

Alberta calls it the biggest step since abandoning the telephone party line system. The company with the contract is going even further, comparing it to the construction of roads in the province.

Even the analysts agree – Alberta’s SuperNet is leading edge.

The province’s Innovation and Science department, along with Calgary-based Axia Net Media, announced Tuesday that 422 of Alberta’s communities will have access to a high-speed, broadband Internet network in less than three years.

Axia, which is partnered with Bell Intrigna, and teamed with Cisco and Microsoft, is contracted to manage, operate and conduct the business affairs of SuperNet over the next 10 years.

The contract, worth up to $240 million over the next three years and a projected $40 million in the years following that, is a major step for Alberta, said Murray Wallace, Axia’s president Wednesday, speaking from his Toronto office.

“There is no place that has this kind of ubiquitous, high-speed broadband capability, going to all parts of a community as big as Alberta, with 3.7 million people,” he said, adding that SuperNet will be accessible in 4,700 facilities in the province. Presently, only 30 communities in Alberta have some access to high-speed Internet.

“I think people are beginning to see that this is the 21st century equivalent of roads, and water and telephone networks and electricity and so on. It is just one of those things you have to have to be competitive.”

Wallace said the first places to see changes will be larger centres because they already have some capabilities. Locations like Edmonton and Calgary may see the service as soon as November.

Bell Intrigna and Axia are responsible for ensuring SuperNet is ‘seamless’ between the base and extended areas. Bell Intrigna is the contractor responsible for the building of SuperNet, and will subcontract the build of the extended area of 395 communities to Axia. All this will involve designing, building and operating the 6,000 km fibre/wireless network to the communities.

Kim Hunt, public affairs spokesperson for Alberta Innovation and Science, said she is confident that this is the biggest thing her department had done since evolving to private telephone lines in the province.

“This bridges the digital divide,” she said. “It’s a unique initiative, so it took a lot of time to make sure we had an efficient way to make this work.”

French Caldwell, research director for technology and public policy at market research firm Gartner Inc., said Alberta has always had a vision for the Internet in the future. In fact, he said, Alberta’s progress is making the federal initiative look like “just a dream.”

“This is taking the smart communities idea in Calgary and creating the smart-clustering effect throughout the entire province,” Caldwell said. “It’s very impressive. It takes a lot of courage to do something like this.”

The next thing Alberta will have to do, he said, is make sure teachers and curriculum is up to speed with the technology.

Hunt said there is still a lot of work to do before the entire plan is reality.

“We are finalizing our implementation plans so we can make sure we have a cost-effective way to get this built to 422 communities in three years,” Hunt said. “The benefits are going to be huge, but it is not going to be tomorrow. But I think we are being watched carefully by the rest of the world right now and we like it when Alberta is leading the way.”

While Wallace wouldn’t identify any specific locations, he said Axia is talking to several different jurisdictions about using Alberta as a model for their region.

“It’s clear that this is not something that is only affordable because Alberta is something of a well-healed province,” he said. “This is the way to do it – put an independent controller in the middle.”

Putting Axia in the middle means all ISPs will have fair access to the extended areas, Wallace said, which in turn means that these ISPs will be able to make residential and business high-speed Internet services available at more competitive rates.

The government will provide a maximum of $193 million to the cost-shared project to build the network’s extended area in 395 of the communities. Bell Intrigna and Bell Nexxia will invest $102 million for the base area, consisting of 27 communities. In total, SuperNet will require a $295 million investment.

According to the contract, the Alberta government will purchase $169 million worth of Bell Intrigna’s telecommunication services over ten years and that is about half of the government’s expected telecommunications expenditure.

“This contract will double our revenues, year over year,” Wallace said, adding that last year, Axia’s revenues were around $65 million. “This is 10-year contract, so the continuing revenues will be significant. We will make money on the construction and so on, but the unique thing is that the primary chance we have to make money will be by creating high volumes and high performance and sharing in the benefits of that.”

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