B.C. relies on wireless transmission to connect rural community

Until recently, residents and businesses in a sparsely-populated region of B.C. have had to endure the pain of dialup-speed internet service.

Now, thanks in part to a grant from the federal government, about two thousand homes and businesses in the lower Similkameen Valley have access to a high-speed, wireless network.

With a population density of just two people per square kilometre, the cost of providing the service for traditional Internet vendors, such as cable and telephone companies, is too high.

But with Ottawa’s help, a wireless network using 12 wireless transmission sites, made business sense, officials said.

About $475,000 of the project’s $1 million cost was provided by a grant from Industry Canada’s Broadband for Rural and Northern Development Pilot Program, according to Doug Leahy, the director of finance for the Okanagan-Similkameen Regional District. The balance came from the regional district and the internet provider, China Creek Internet Service Ltd., based in Princeton, B.C.

Leahy said one of the most important benefits of the service is educational.

“Now the students can research, they can surf the Net, they can do things that any other kid can do in an urban area,” Leahy said in an interview. “The rural areas have always felt that they’re the poor cousins.”

“I want to make sure our youth have the same tools to get out in the job market,” he said. “If you’ve never had (high-speed internet), it’s just a tremendous improvement.” Allowing residents to diagnose their own health problems is another important benefit, Leahy added, noting that the Interior Health Authority has made available eMedicalLibrary on its site. The library, developed by Stanford University, provides access to reliable, current medical information.

Because of the low population density, the need for electronic services is higher than in cities, where there are more facilities for health, education and other needs.

But the service will make life easier in other ways, Leahy said, including researching products online before buying.

“They might go look at a skidoo,” he said. “We get snow out here, right? They might look at an Arctic Cat or a Polaris, or whatever. They find one, and then they go to the local dealer and say, ‘This is what I want.’ ”

China Creek network engineer Dan Pattison said the biggest interest in the service concerns e-mail.

“It doesn’t matter who gets the internet connection, they always want to know about e-mail,” Pattison said.

After that, users’ interests in the service, which costs $34.95 per month, vary widely.

“Some of our customers here get the internet connection solely to play video games online,” he said.

The service would not have been possible without the federal grant.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do it because the return on investment is just way too long,” Pattison said. “Before you even started making money, it would be years just to pay it all off.”

Even the most remote areas have had dialup access, and users are thrilled with the boost in speed, he added: “When they get on our system, it makes the internet useable.”

More than 600 users have signed up so far for the service, which offers speeds of up to 10 megabits per second.

The project is a public-private partnership between the regional district and China Creek, which designed and built the network. China Creek now operates, manages and maintains the service.

The transmission towers cover 70 km along Highways 3 and 3A, from the U.S. Border to west of Hedley, and from Keremeos to north of Olalla. Each tower can serve several hundred users. Internet traffic is sent via microwave to a fibre optic hub in Penticton

Several native reserves of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band and the Upper Similkameen Indian Band are in the service area, along with the communities of Cawston, Olalla, Hedley and Chopaka, and surrounding areas.

China Creek is continuing to expand the network, Pattison said. It has already added the Twin Lakes area, and by the end of March Tulameen and Coalmont will also be included. This spring, Oliver and Osoyoos will join the network, he said.

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