When the federal government in May 2000 bestowed $60 million on 12 successful Smart Communities funding applicants, it provided a much-needed kick-start to the Smart Community initiatives launched two years earlier. Not only did an official Smart Communities demonstration project get off the ground in each province and two northern regions, but dozens of similar projects sprang up in communities across the country. In this exclusive report, key stakeholders and enablers of smart community initiatives share their thoughts about the benefits and challenges of participating in a smart community project.
Elinor Bradley, Director
Smart Communities Program Industry Canada
Although she may be somewhat biased, Elinor Bradley sees the Smart Communities Program as “the jewel in the crown” of the federal government’s Connecting Canadians initiative. As director of the program, Bradley oversees the development of the 12 Smart Communities demonstration projects which were awarded $5 million each in federal funding in May 2000.
In selecting which Smart Communities proposals would receive funding, Industry Canada looked for “communities that had a vision of the future that included information and communication technologies used in innovative and transformative ways that would really make a difference in their communities,” Bradley says.
“What we want to see are some real differences in terms of economic benefits and quality of life,” she says.
Providing barrier-free public access to electronic services was a key selection criterion in the Smart Communities funding competition, which was first announced in June 1999. Bradley cites the winning Smart Communities proposal in Nova Scotia as a good example of how access issues within remote communities can be overcome. The Western Valley Smart Community project will introduce 100 “smart kiosks” to help serve the region’s 43,000 residents, many of whom may not otherwise be able to access the Internet. The kiosks are being built by Fundy Fibreglass, a local fibreglass boat maker that has seen its business decline along with the Atlantic fisheries industry.
Successful Smart Communities funding applicants were those who demonstrated a high level of commitment and cooperation among the community partners backing the proposal, Bradley says. “An eligible community had to be a community that was relatively cohesive, that had some evidence of working together,” she adds.
David Johnston, Chairman
National Broadband Task Force
President, University of Waterloo
A guiding principle behind the Smart Communities initiative is that all citizens be able to connect to electronic services within their communities. The National Broadband Task Force was established in October 2000 to advise the Government of Canada on how best to make high-speed broadband Internet services available to businesses and residents in all Canadian communities by 2004. The task force was scheduled to complete its report by the end of May.
David Johnston, chairman of the National Broadband Task Force, says he believes government has a key role to play with respect to broadband accessibility.
“[The federal] government’s philosophy is to provide as encouraging an environment as one can for the private sector to be very innovative in connecting Canadians and developing connecting products, be it more advanced forms of fibre optics, satellite communications or wireless technology,” Johnston says.
According to Johnston, forms of public/private partnerships that could advance the federal government’s Connecting Canadians agenda might include direct government grants or loans to telecommunications carriers who build broadband systems, or assistance programs for individual users who may not have access to broadband networks.
Johnston says providing widespread high-speed broadband access to Canadian communities could provide tremendous social benefits in the form of telelearning or telehealth applications. On the economic side, investments in information and communication technology, with very high levels of access – particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises and smaller communities – will grow Canada’s gross national product very considerably, Johnston adds.
By way of comparison, he points to the success of the SchoolNet initiative, which as of March 1999 provided Internet access to every public school and library in the country, including schools in the far north – a region to which the National Broadband Task Force is paying particular attention.
“There has been a tradition in our country of not allowing conditions to develop where people have to move to large urban centres to earn a respectable living,” Johnston says. “The interest in broadband access would be a continuation of that general theme that it is possible to have not only an attractive social life in a smaller northern community, but that economic prospects are there as well.”
Randy Johns, Project Leader,
Headwaters Smart Community Project Manger,
Keewatin Career Development Corp.
La Ronge, Sask
Randy Johns hopes the Headwaters Smart Community Project in northern Saskatchewan can help to restore the region’s economic prospects. Since the collapse of the northern fur trade more than 150 years ago, the peoples of northern Saskatchewan have felt isolated from the global economy.
As manager of Keewatin Career Development Corp. in La Ronge, Sask., Johns was chosen as project leader for the Headwaters Project, which was one of the 12 smart communities proposals that received federal funding last year. One of the goals of the Headwaters Project is to help the region’s businesses to use e-commerce to market northern goods and services, such as tourism.
Convincing northern Saskatchewan businesses they can play a role in the global economy could be a challenge though, Johns says. “It will take some time for everyone to adjust to the idea that the things we do may have some small impact globally, and that there’s interest globally in what we’re doing,” he says.
As with any northern community in Canada, the 570,000-square-kilometre region of northern Saskatchewan has its share of geographic challenges. The region’s 33,000 residents are spread across 40 isolated communities. In an effort to connect these small communities to each other and the outside world, 35 community access centres are being established to let the region’s citizens access the Internet and participate in distance education classes.
The government of Saskatchewan and the provincial telecommunications carrier, SaskTel, are providing infrastructure support through an initiative called CommunityNet, which will provide high-speed connectivity to schools, health facilities and government offices. Johns says this is a welcome development because many northern communities rely on satellite communications which cannot support two-way bandwidth-intensive
applications such as videoconferencing.
From a content point of view, two Web sites are being developed as part of the smart community project. Keewatin Career Development Corp.’s own site (http://www.kcdc.sk.ca) will serve as a central location through which residents will be able to access a network of Web sites offering different services in the region. The second Web site (http://www.kayas.ca) will focus on aboriginal culture and heritage and is being built in partnership with Missinipi Broadcasting Corp., a Saskatchewan aboriginal radio and video producer.
The heritage Web site is an important component of the overall smart community project, Johns says. While enabling northern Saskatchewan businesses and residents to take part in the global economy is an obvious benefit of the Headwaters Smart Community Project, Johns and other project team members recognize there is a potential downside as well.
Close consultation with community leaders will help to ensure the success of the smart community project, Johns says. “We have to be aware of what people at the grass-roots level need and how they want to use these (community access) centres,” he says. “Because we can open up these nice centres, but if no one comes to use them, then we’ve defeated our purpose.”
Bill St. Arnaud, Senior Director
One of the biggest challenges faced by smart communities is there are many thousands of towns, surprisingly close to major cities, that still don’t have fibre network access, says Bill St. Arnaud, senior director of network projects for CANARIE Inc.
According to St. Arnaud, a new form of fibre network development – condominium fibre networks – may hold the key to extending fibre access to all regions of the country. “There are companies who will build what we call condominium fibre networks on the same principle as a condominium apartment building,” St. Arnaud explains. “Rather than leasing bandwidth, there are individual strands in the fibre cable and they will sell those to different carriers and to different customers.”
Most condominium networks are private-sector-operated, but government can play a critical role when they contract out telecommunications services by insisting carriers build condominium fibre networks rather than exclusive monopoly networks, St. Arnaud says. He adds condominium networks are an effective way of extending the reach of current broadband access in Canada.
“That’s exactly what has happened in Alberta,” St. Arnaud says, referring to the Alberta SUPERNET project announced in November 2000. “The Alberta government has provided some funding or loans up front, and Bell Intrigna is going to build a condominium fibre network to all these communities in Alberta.
“Because it’s a condominium network, that means Bell does not have exclusive rights. Any of Bell’s competitors can buy strands of fibre and deliver services to these communities,” St. Arnaud adds.
Telecom competition in smaller communities creates an open, level playing field that drives innovation and reduces costs, St. Arnaud says. “Whatever governments can do to encourage competition will have the biggest benefit [for communities],” he says.
Donna Marentette, Director
Technology and Development
Windsor Public Library
In much the same way the city of Windsor, Ont., owes its existence to the St. Lawrence Seaway and its present-day prosperity to the Ambassador Bridge link with Detroit, its economic future is dependent on having access to the information highway, says Donna Marentette, director of technology and development for Windsor Public Library.
“We are absolutely in competition with every other community in the world now,” Marentette says. “Our residents have to have the tools, they have to have the access. They have to learn about this stuff or else – it’s that clear to me.”
Windsor Public Library is a key stakeholder and enabler of the Windsor-Essex County WEconnect Smart Community initiative. Although the WEconnect funding application to the federal government’s Smart Communities Program was ultimately rejected last year, after being chosen as one of five shortlisted proposals in Ontario, the experience was a fruitful one, Marentette says.
“What that process did for us was pull together the community decision-makers and those who have an IT mandate into working groups that have continued to meet and pursue funding opportunities in as coordinated a way as possible,” she says.
The WEconnect initiative is backed by more than 25 public-sector organizations and about 15 private-sector partners who have collectively committed $18 million to the smart community project. In June 2000, the WEconnect partners applied for provincial funding as part of the Connect Ontario program. However, WEconnect is primarily expected to be a community-funded initiative.
For Windsor Public Library, its interest in the smart community project is primarily about content and access, Marentette says. The library’s vision is one of “universal access to the universe of ideas,” she says. The library itself has brought in about $300,000 in funding for equipment and access, to enable residents to use the library to connect to on-line resources, she adds.
Her advice to other communities looking to take the “smart” plunge is to just do it. “Don’t be afraid. Start small and do whatever you can do. If you need help, ask for it,” Marentette says. “A journey of 1,000 miles starts with the first step.”
Director Information Systems Regional Municipality of Waterloo
Assistant Manager, IT Services
Waterloo Region District School Board
For a smart community to be successful, there needs to be a strong partnership among both public- and private-sector stakeholders who are working toward a common vision, advises Walter Gasparini, director of information systems for the Regional Municipality of Waterloo, Ont.
However, achieving a common vision can be difficult, Gasparini says. “Getting people to work on the same types of applications is a challenge, because each of the people involved have different priorities, different timeframes, different funding models and budgets,” he says.
Before smart community applications can be developed, the infrastructure has to be in place, he adds. “You can have the greatest intent for applications, but if you don’t have a way to deliver the services, that’s a problem,” he says.
Waterloo has extensive network coverage throughout the region. A fibre network, called the Waterloo Region Education and Public Network (WREPNet), is jointly funded and managed by 10 public-sector partners, consisting of Waterloo Region, the region’s two school boards (public and separate), the three main cities in the region and their public library systems, and a local community college.
“We all share the cost proportionally,” explains Doug Brown, assistant manager of IT services for the Waterloo Region District School Board. “The school board I work for has the largest number of sites, about 53 per cent of them. So every time there’s a shared cost, our board pays 53 per cent of it.”
Tied into the fibre network is a wireless network that was built three years ago to connect 10 rural libraries and four township offices and to provide public Internet access at the rural libraries. The Waterloo Region Rural Community Network was funded through Ontario’s Telecommunications Access Partnerships (TAP) program, says Waterloo Region’s Gasparini.
A third element of the region’s network infrastructure is the Waterloo Information Network (WIN) which has a long-term objective of creating a community portal. “To me, a smart community is a place where you can create a one-stop service delivery area,” Gasparini says, adding the community should make it easy for its citizens to find the services they need.
Brown adds: “You can have the smartest community you want as far as the technology is concerned, but if people don’t have access to it, nobody gets any smarter.”
Linda Stuart is a Toronto-based Freelance Writer who specializes in e-business and IT management. She can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]