David Bass, a 30-year veteran of the Alberta government, credits his background with Alberta Learning for preparing him to develop a strategic plan for the use of information technology. Today, he is Assistant Deputy Minister of Technology Services with the Office of Restructuring and Government Efficiency. He spoke recently about the completion of Alberta’s SuperNet in 2005, as well as the province’s pioneering spirit, with Lisa Williams, senior writer with InterGovWorld.com. Excerpts from their conversation follow:
Q. I know that improving coordination and standardizing the government’s computer systems was on the “to-do” list for Alberta in 2005 – Alberta’s Centennial. How would you say that’s coming along, and what sort of changes or improvements are you looking to make with the system?
A. I think there are a couple of things that are significant, particularly if you talk about the Centennial year. It’s the year that we’ve completed the build of SuperNet, and what SuperNet has done is not only provide broadband access to almost all of our communities – about 420 communities – but also it has connected over 4,000 government or public sector facilities to broadband. What that’s enabled us to do is significantly change the manner in which we deliver information management and information technology solutions across the province. Now we’re able to take advantage of broadband both for delivery of services and in terms of management of our technical infrastructure. Probably one of the biggest impediments we had to implementing a standard architecture and standards in terms of technology was the difficulty of being able to reach province-wide. SuperNet’s played a major role in doing that.
Q. What prompted the need for SuperNet, and what was the response from the citizens of Alberta?
A. They responded very well from a positive perspective in terms of what we’re doing. The reason for (SuperNet) is, as technology becomes more and more an integral part of people’s lives, and we need delivery of business in different areas, the lack of reliable and significant broadband capacity within the rural areas has really disadvantaged them. The other driver is – particularly if you look at two of the major priority areas . . . being delivery of health services and delivery of learning services – it’s extremely difficult to provide the same level of expertise and variety and quality of services, if you don’t have a base. Whereas, with SuperNet in place is we have an ability to access either instructors, doctors or hospital facilities that are in urban centres and make them available to the rural areas.
Some of the things we’re looking at are enabling rural doctors to engage with specialists in urban areas to deal with certain diagnoses, or dealing with assisting and managing the treatment of someone close to where they live, as opposed to them having to deal with all of the implications of traveling hundreds of miles to get some service. . . We’re also finding that it’s having a benefit and impact in terms of new opportunities around things such as the management of water quality. There are a number of things that you can now do from a distance if you’ve got the broadband capacity in terms of managing those, and we’re just starting to see some of them.
And the other thing that is likely to come is – particularly within the oil and gas sector, as we extend the reach in terms of data communications – we’ve got the ability (companies) to start doing monitoring as opposed to having to send people out, particularly in the middle of winter, to check on different plants that they’ve got running, or different pumps or wells. So the range of the benefits that it has is far more significant than just providing access to individuals.
Q. Bell and Axia SuperNet Ltd. played a big role in the SuperNet project. Could you talk about that role?
A. The concept behind the agreement was that the services that the government needs in terms of telecommunications and broadband end up being the core commitment that was made by the province to the implementation of SuperNet. But the other part of it was that Bell and Axia end up using a certain amount of the capacity. I think the government took around 40 per cent of the capacity and the other 60 per cent is available for business and individual use. So what we’ve done is we’ve used the government need to put in place fibre throughout the province, which can then be leveraged and extended, either through wireless or ISP services or others, to meet the needs of businesses and individuals. So it’s really like a public-private partnership arrangement where the public gets some benefit in terms of what it needs. The private sector – Bell and Axia – end up building and managing the operation and the solution, and the public ends up being able to benefit from being able to gain access to it.
The other part of it is, it’s very much a competitive model, and so as a result of the build what we have is a fairly competitive telecommunications environment in the province, particularly between Bell, Telus and Shaw. For example, they’re all seeing the opportunity to leverage their ability to connect into SuperNet . . . to start providing a wider range of services and opportunities across the province, and people have a choice. They can go to Bell, they can go to Telus, they can go to Shaw, or they can go to somebody else. What that’s doing is it’s getting the major players and some of the small ones really looking at: “Where are my opportunities and how can I best contribute to this?”
Q. Is the sustainability of the project a concern or something that you anticipate being a challenge in the future?
A. Actually, we don’t. The reason being that the commitment that’s been made by the government, to provide a certain level of service to be delivered by Bell and Axia, provides enough for it to be sustainable. And secondly, what we’re starting to experience in terms of the level of uptake and interest from Internet service providers from other businesses and from the public is such that we see this having actually created a higher level of demand provincially, because we now have the core infrastructure that they can build on.
We have a very long-term agreement with Bell and Axia, in which they’re accountable for the maintenance and support of the network, and the delivery of the services. We have the right to purchase, or to take over the network if it was felt to be necessary, but there was no hesitation by either Bell or Axia to step up to the responsibility. Part of the reason being that we’re dealing with fibre – the fibre technology is capable of delivering things for quite an extended period of time.
Q. In terms of the ICT Service Coordination Initiative, is that something separate from SuperNet, is that related at all?
A. It’s a separate initiative, but clearly there is a relationship. One of the things we’re trying to do through the ICT Service Coordinator is move to more of a standard space, to integrated central management as part of our infrastructure services. If we’re going to do that, we need something like SuperNet. It will give us the ability to be able to centrally manage it, push out updates, be able to provide services from centrally housed servers, and still be able to get the same kind of performance. And we believe that, with the fibre network, that will not be an issue.
Q. How do you think the needs of Alberta in the information sector vary from other provinces? Are there challenges that are unique to Alberta?
A. I think Alberta’s a little different than some of the other provinces. Very much we have a history that some of the people would refer to as our pioneering spirit, but it’s very much a history of being a competitive environment. And looking at some of our core industry directions, whether it’s agriculture, whether it’s oil and gas or certain other sectors – some of the sectors that we deal with, and the need to be able to bring innovation to continue to be competitive within those arenas and to respond to the changing demands, is very much an Alberta environment.
Because of that, I think the approach we’ve taken with SuperNet, where we provide the initial capacity but we turn to the private sector and the individuals to then determine how best to leverage that for the particular needs, will really enable it. So it’s much more of a private sector driven environment then maybe some of the other provinces are, and very much a highly competitive environment.
So I think that’s probably the biggest difference, and that’s part of the reason why the approach to SuperNet was, ‘We’re not planning on putting this in place and having it as a provincial one’. Rather, we have a need by the public sector, and so we want to leverage that, have the private sector leverage that as an opportunity for positioning for what the province needs on a private sector perspective. So that’s what we’ve done. And that’s typically been the Alberta way.