Alberta begins $295M fibre-optic networking project

The Alberta government has finalized a $295 million outsourcing agreement that will see the construction of a fibre-optic network connecting every school, library and government facility in the province.

The project, dubbed SuperNet, promises to bring high-speed broadband access to 4,700 facilities in 422 communities within three years. This week Axia IP Services Ltd. was won the bid to help design, build and maintain the network with a 10-year renewable contract. The Calgary-based subsidiary of Axia NetMedia will work with Bell Intrigna, which will provide network capabilities in large urban centres, while Axia will also offer specialty IP services in smaller remote areas. The project, requiring some 6,000 lines of fibre, will see Bell and Axia cap their wholesale rates to ISPs in an effort to provide more equitable access to citizens wherever they are. SuperNet was officially launched last November.

Grant Chaney, chief technology office at Alberta Innovation and Science, said SuperNet will change the government’s traditional role in leveling the playing field to its constituents.

“In the past, we’ve gotten into the telecommunications business simply because we couldn’t get services out to some of our remote offices in rural Alberta,” he said. ” This is going to allow us to move away from being in the business rather than getting back into it.”

Axia NetMedia Corp. president Murray Wallace said Alberta’s decision to choose a company other than a traditional telecom carrier will ensure competitive pricing.

“The RFP had been written, naturally, in terms of who would be traditional providers. I think the initial bidders consisted of a number of telcos and cable companies,” he said. “We were the only company who was sort of an ISP design/management company. I’m sure they scratched their heads initially and said ‘Why are they in the picture?'”

Wallace said the complexity of the request for proposal (RFP) surpassed anything he’d seen in any business, but Chaney said it was deliberately designed to allow for a variety of different solutions.

“This was quite a departure form the way governments have traditionally done things, where if you wanted something like a network you’d spend years designing the thing,” he said. “If we would have gone that route, we would have ended up with an obsolete network. By the time you go through an RFP process, it’s months old. As it is, we have a design for the network, but we have flexibility with respect to that design.”

Chaney said he looked forward to the application benefits that SuperNet’s infrastructure will bring to educators and health-care providers. While Alberta’s government has put considerable investment support behind the project, Chaney said he looked forward to seeing other parts of the country follow the province’s lead.

“I hope it’s going to be a very strong precedent,” he said. “I think it’s a very viable model. If you go back to the turn of the century and people were talking about putting in roads and you saw the economic infrastructure that allow roads, I see this very much as the same sort of fundamental groundbreaking vision and policy direction.”

Wallace agreed. “We are hoping that there will be no pride of authorship around this and that people will be able to take a look at this and see that it’s a sensible thing to do,” he said, adding that the company has already opened discussions with other jurisdictions outside Canada. “They all had the same issue. When they take a look at the way the economics shake out in this proposal they understand that there has to be a way to make sure that competition remains over time and that it doesn’t sort of degrade back into a monopoly situation.”

Axia will put between 30 and 40 engineering, design, maintenance and operating people on the SuperNet project. Much of the actual construction work will be contracted out. Cisco will offer educational support and Net-based services, while Microsoft will provide software for the project.

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