The united county of Leeds-Grenville, located just southeast of Ottawa, offers rolling vistas of greenery and, come springtime, plenty of foliage. But according to some, the area is also somewhat barren – in a technological sense.
Indeed, one might describe Leeds-Grenville as a “digital desert,” according to Vic Allen, a businessman and resident of Kemptville, Ont., one of the towns that comprises the county. Allen says high-speed Internet connections are rare in Leeds-Grenville. “We’re still forced to use 28.8 (Kbps) dial-up for 95 per cent of the people in the area.”
Allen figures his community missed out on the broadband revolution. Just north on Highway 416, he points out, Ottawa cultivated a connected culture. But incumbent high-speed Internet carriers prefer to work in densely populated areas like downtown Ottawa, where competition is fierce and profits are easier to attain. Allen’s neck of the woods is not the ideal market for telcos and cable companies.
So how did Leeds-Grenville propose to reconcile a need for broadband and the dearth of connectivity? By building a high-speed data network of its own, of course.
Unwilling to sit back and wait for broadband to come to them, the county built a carrier-class backbone: a 45Mbps loop consisting of transmitters and towers, antennae and radios.
Across Canada you’ll find other communities doing the same thing. Too small for the incumbents, but too large to let the drive to digital pass them by, certain localities plan to turn airwaves into data packet conduits.
For the people of Leeds-Grenville, fixed wireless technology was the only feasible option, Allen says.
The community wanted broadband, but the usual high-speed providers were not prepared to provide it. Allen said they prefer to compete in densely populated areas of 50,000 or more. Leeds-Grenville’s population of 100,000 is big enough, but it’s spread too far and wide.
“The business case just doesn’t fly,” Allen admits. “You can’t expect Bell (Canada) and Telus (Corp.) to build infrastructure…purely to satisfy the problems of the digital desert.”
Bernard Courtois, Bell Canada’s chief strategy officer, wholeheartedly agrees. Although his company would ideally serve Leeds-Grenville, the area offers no compelling reason to roll out infrastructure.
“There isn’t the demand there to justify the building of fibre networks. Sometimes it’s frustrating because we might have a big fibre root going right by those communities, but to break out some fibre from that root, it’s almost the same kind of money as if you were to run fibre all the way. The economics, until you have enough demand, don’t justify it.”
But economics, Allen says, justified some kind of broadband action. In the mid-’90s, he and some colleagues collected advice and thoughts on ways to improve Leeds-Grenville’s financial status. Through consultations, discussions and public meetings, the group learned that broadband Internet access was key to the community’s future.
“Any company or enterprise moving down Highway 416 wanting to locate here, the first question they ask is, ‘What kind of connectivity do you have?'” Allen says. “Five minutes down the road from Ottawa you might as well be in the middle of Saskatchewan or the most remote parts of Alberta.”
The county hit upon a solution with fixed wireless infrastructure. Leeds-Grenville could build the network itself, with help from network equipment makers and funds from above. Allen’s consultation group, known as the Upper Canada Economic Renewal project, canvassed the government, high-tech vendors and potential network stakeholders for help. Almost $4 million later, the infrastructure, built by the likes of Cisco Systems Canada, WiBand Communications and Wi-LAN Inc., is up and running.
The Upper Canada Economic Renewal project changed its name to Upper Canada Networks (www.uppercanada.net) and, with Allen at the helm, hopes to offer high-speed Internet access across the community this year.
So far, so good, according to one UCNet early adopter. The Kemptville Truck Centre wanted high-speed Internet access because “a lot of our warranty claims and engine information comes across the Internet now,” said Martin Glennon, the firm’s systems administrator.
The truck centre looked into a T-1 line from Bell, but the cost was too high at almost $3,000 per month. Instead, it turned to UCNet where the $400 price tag for 1.5Mbps service was substantially cheaper than the T-1.
Glennon said the architecture works well for the truck centre’s 20-or-so Internet users – he rates downtime at “half a day out of every three months” – but he is not convinced it would do so well for large corporations. “If you’re looking at more than 100 users, you’d probably want to go with a T-1, for reliability and sheer amount of bandwidth.”
But according to Wanda Posehn, a vice-president with Calgary-based wireless network equipment builder Wi-LAN, Glennon might be wrong. Wi-LAN helped connect the Northern Lights School Division in Northern Alberta. That network spans 9,523 sq.-km and serves more than 7,000 students and teachers.
Still, wireless infrastructure is not for everyone, said Mark Quigley, a telecommunications industry analyst with the Yankee Group in Canada.
For one thing, consider the “line-of-sight” problem. The antennae and towers in wireless networks must be able to “see” each other. When topography offers up buildings, hills, trees and valleys, line of site is difficult to attain.
But Posehn said the technology is not as delicate as Quigley suggests. Her company works with wideband orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (W-OFDM), a protocol that accounts for transmission path obstructions and bounces signals to their destinations.
Wi-LAN also created a versatile intelligent networking environment (VINE) that turns erstwhile endpoints into transmitters, thus extending the network beyond the transmission tower’s original reach.
These technological summersaults give the company access to new markets like Leeds-Grenville. “We think the communities have…been starving for a long time for good broadband services,” Posehn said.
UCNet plans to answer Leeds-Grenville’s immediate need for quick connectivity, but in the end the group hopes to foster a sort of co-opetition with other carriers. In this scenario, the group’s infrastructure would entice businesses and, over time, the population would be sufficiently dense to attract the likes of Bell. With competition comes more choices, and more reasons for enterprises to locate in Leeds-Grenville.
Meanwhile, in Midland…
UCNet’s proposal, however, is a tightrope walk, as Community-One LAN Solution Inc.’s experience proves. A subsidiary of Midland, Ont.’s public utilities commission, Community-One built a fixed wireless network of its own, also with Wi-LAN’s help.
But late in the year 2000 a local ISP called Compu-Solve Internet Services Inc. started reselling wireline ADSL service in the area, and the competition could hurt Community-One.
Peter Hess, Community-One’s chair, said the company has attracted just four customers so far. “Frankly, we are disappointed,” he said. Community-One expected at least 30 enterprise-class subscribers to join. After all, Midland’s main industry is auto parts, a world where fast connections between suppliers and buyers are becoming the status quo.
Why have clients stayed away? According to Hess, it’s the price factor. It seems that the cost of an antenna and radio is not low enough for most, especially in the face of competition from tried and true ADSL.
Community-One’s price, $240 per month, gets subscribers 512Kbps service, an antenna and a radio. Hess said installation costs vary. Compu-Solve’s price is $485 per month for ADSL service, but that gives customers the corporate-class 3Mbps service.
Despite the cost and speed discrepancies, Hess said Community-One has the upper hand because wireless networks are more scalable and have a greater reach than ADSL.
“We are guaranteeing a minimum (transfer rate of) 128Kbps to subscribers,” Hess said, noting that ADSL providers offer no such warranties. “We’ll continue to upgrade as the subscriber base grows.”
Justin Sainte, chief librarian at the Midland Public Library, is a believer. The institution signed on with Community-One just before Compu-Solve rolled out its ADSL service.
Sainte said some customers would prefer to work with Community-One, all things being equal. As it’s underwritten by the PUC, the wireless network feels more community-based than Compu-Solve’s profit-minded solution.
Still, all things must be equal. Community “plays a part in the decision-making process, but you’ve got to have a quality product. We have what has turned out to be an extremely reliable communications tool.”
Sainte said the library penned a special deal with Community-One, and he is sure the institution pays a discounted price for service. He would not say how much Community-One’s access costs the library each month.
Back in Kemptville, Allen said UCNet’s project has not been easy. For one thing, network stakeholders wanted to see the system at work before they bought in, but UCNet could not build the network until it had the funds. And, when Network World Canada spoke with Allen last month, the network was “five to six months late. It has everything to do with getting collocation agreements with those who already have towers.”
UCNet built a tower of its own in Prescott, Ont. and plans to erect another in Merrickville. The group only needs access to one Telus-owned tower in Kemptville to complete its wireless loop.
“We’re very close,” Allen said. “It’s an ongoing thing. If we’d been operating sooner, we would have had an easier job, but we’re going to do it.”