Tiny Ontario town gets big Web investment

As if to indicate how Canada’s urban-rural “digital divide” might finally be bridged, Bell Canada and Nortel Networks are teaming up to study the effects of advanced communication technology on one far-flung location.

“Project Chapleau” will see Bell expand its fibre-optic network in Chapleau, Ont., a town 320 kilometres northeast of Sault Ste. Marie with 3,000 inhabitants. Besides the Bell fibre enhancement, Nortel will install a wireless mesh network in the municipality for local, mobile hooks into the fibre backbone. Thus the firm’s aim is to bring high-speed Web connectivity to the area, a first for Chapleau.

As well as the new network, project stakeholders will give Chapleau citizens access to video conferencing and other collaborative technologies. Over a period of time the venture will scrutinize the ways in which people use the new applications, to investigate the effects of these novel programs on government services, medicine, education and economic development.

“Over the next 18 months we will work with Bell…and Nortel to analyze the long-term economic needs of the community and determine how best to use these new broadband services,” said Chapleau Mayor Earle Freeborn in a statement.

Much has been written about the gap between this nation’s digital have and have-not communities. Communication-industry observers have long mentioned that although Canada’s urban centres like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal rarely lack the quick information access that high-speed Web links afford, smaller areas like Chapleau go without such productivity boosters.

In a world where fast Internet connectivity is a must for business, enterprises short of these increasingly requisite services face extinction for the dearth of data conduits.

In the past carriers explained that it wasn’t economically feasible to expand their high-speed offerings beyond the nation’s urban hubs. Rural areas offered little return on investment for the likes of Bell. But that might be changing.

For instance, “by combining wired and wireless, it might be financially viable,” said Roberta Fox, president of Fox Group Consulting, a communication-tech advisory firm in Markham, Ont. Wireless networks like the one Nortel plans to create in Chapleau are less expensive than cable networks, so carriers might be able profit while servicing erstwhile unattractive markets. If carriers can reap positive ROI, perhaps they’ll further their reach and bring the increasingly crucial high-speed connectivity to more rural spots.

Chris Merritt, a Nortel vice-president, pointed out that whether by offering money-making applications or by building low-cost networks, carriers seek sustainable market expansion. Project Chapleau could help telcos and equipment providers discover the right balance in rural areas. “That’s one of the things we want to learn,” he said.

Network expansion can have a positive effect on hard-to-reach communities, said Bill Elliott, Fox Group’s director of business development and consulting. He participated in a project that saw the Lake Nipissing region seeded with high-speed Web connections a few years ago.

The then-new asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) pipes improved the location’s economic prospects. For instance, Topex Inc., an explosives-technology provider in Bonfield, Ont., switched from shipping its products via courier to using the Web for delivering CAD/CAM drawings, digital photos and such to its clients.

“They’ve extended their business,” Elliott said of Topex. “That’s an example of the type of development that can happen when you have high-speed services.”

Speaking at a press conference last week, Brian McFadden, Nortel’s CTO, said Project Chapleau aims to further our collective understanding of the impact technology has on health care, government services and other aspects of public infrastructure.

Bell executive vice-president Lawson Hunter said Chapleau would be a showcase for the ways in which technology can help make remote communities seem that much more connected to the rest of the world.

Mayor Freeborn said Chapleau has had trouble marketing itself as a tourism destination, despite its close proximity to a 700,000-hectare nature preserve (the Chapleau Crown Game Preserve). He said the new Web links and communication apps might help his municipality make its presence known on the global stage.

For more information visit www.projectchapleau.sl.ca.

Related links:

Wireless beats fibre on Prairie

Wireless mesh works wonders for Royal Ottawa hospital

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