Bell Canada and Nortel Networks are using a small Ontario town as a test case for the potential of high-speed broadband networks in rural Canada.

The two companies

on Thursday announced Project Chapleau, which will see Bell Canada upgrade its fibre network into Chapleau, Ont., which has a population of about 3,000 people, and Nortel deploy wireless mesh, optical, voice-over-IP and multimedia communications products.

In a teleconference broadcast from the community, which lies about 320 km northeast of Sault Ste. Marie, Bell and Nortel described Project Chapleau as a research initiative that could provide insight into the challenges of building up adoption of broadband applications outside of urban centres.

“We want to further our understanding of the economic and business models of broadband when it’s available to everyone in the communities, how it will affect the way communications is delivered,” said Brian McFadden, Nortel’s chief research officer, citing schools as one of the immediate beneficiaries. 

“I’m very interested to see how the students utilize this network in ways that none of us will ever think about. And it will be good ways, trust me,” he joked.

Chapleau mayor Earle Freeborn said the town has a reputation for being rich in natural resources but has had difficulty marketing itself as a prime hunting and fishing location.

“It means Chapleau won’t be solely dependent on its own environment,” he said. “If we can tap into an online tourism, we’ll ultimately be attracting business . . . We’re looking forward to becoming a showcase community.”

Challenges to the project’s success include coaching local businesses and industries, as well as training residents, Freeborn said.

Bell Canada executive vice-president and chief corporate officer Lawson Hunter said the project would provide Chapleau residents with access to health-care services outside their town and open up the chance for e-learning, including programs that could originate in Chapleau. 

“In our view, our partnership promises to break down barriers that once made certain opportunities inaccessible to this community,” he said. “In your town, we’ve made an important step to crossing that digital divide.” 

While companies such as Allstream, Rogers and NR Communications have formed ventures such as Inukshuk Internet to bring high-speed Internet to rural areas, the federal government has also played a role. Last year, for example, Industry Canada awarded a $1 million grant to bring wireless broadband to North Bay, Ont.

Rural communities are important to the economic and social fabric of Canada, McFadden added, which is one of the reasons they need access to the same advanced technologies in urban areas. It could also mean greater connectivity between local governments and their citizens, he added.

”I’m sure you’ll be able to reach Earle much more easily with this new network, and he’s looking forward to that,” he said.

McFadden said the upgraded network would be lit in the fall.

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