Free broadband works wonders at Fredericton and Moncton

You wouldn’t expect a former railway town and a quiet university municipality to be hotbeds of tech innovation.

Yet Moncton and Fredericton were up there with the best, being named among the world’s top seven “intelligent communities” in January this year.

The honour was conferred on the two New Brunswick cities by New York-based Intelligent Communities Forum (ICF).

ICF, which recognizes the success of global communities in developing a broadband economy, lauded the two cities for their free wireless and fibre-to-the-home initiatives that have boosted business and education.   

Last week, at an ICF-hosted event held in Toronto, spokespersons from the province shared how the two cities pulled off the coup.

New Brunswick has successfully positioned itself as an alternative location for young IT professionals seeking to build their careers, according to Victor Boudreau, minister of business for New Brunswick.

For instance, he said, the eastern Canada province would soon be the only North American jurisdiction where broadband will be “available to absolutely everyone no matter where they are.” It’s an accomplishment made possible by a deal with local wireless broadband service firm Barrett Xplore Inc. to deliver high-speed Internet access to all rural areas by 2010.

Likewise, Boudreau said, the province will also have in place the “most comprehensive” fibre-to-the-home network in Canada thanks to a contract signed last spring with telecom firm Bell Aliant Regional Communications.  

Trading tracks for wires

The railway practically built Moncton, New Brunswick but CN’s (Canadian National Railways) decision to leave the town in the late 1980s quickly took the steam out of the maritime city’s economy.

“When the trains pulled out we were stuck,” recalled Ben Champoux, business development specialist for the City of Moncton. “Almost overnight 40,000 people, or 20 per cent of the population, lost their jobs.”

Its strategic location, which made Moncton an ideal railway hub, no longer worked for it, Champoux said: “We found location, location, location didn’t mean much in the new economy.”

But a decision in the 1990s to “trade tracks for wires” and invest in information technology (IT) attracted businesses and spawned new jobs.

It was the early days of the Internet, Champoux recalled, and Moncton was able to create a more “versatile economy”, where no single sector employed more than nine per cent of the workforce.

“Through technology we were able to transition jobs from railway engineers to system engineers.”   

The city’s Vision 2010 plan identifies industries that could benefit and grow from broadband and information technologies.

Today, he said, as much as 99.3 per cent of the city’s population is connected to broadband, all businesses have Internet access, and 100 per cent of public transit is equipped with free Wi-Fi.

Internet connectivity, Champoux said, is boosting local business and attracting outside investment. “We are now major Canadian customer contact and back office centre, building a near-shore IT outsourcing industry.”

Moncton has a total workforce of around 75,000 people. More than 25,000 of those jobs were created within the last 20 years.

Five pillars of tech innovation

Municipalities looking at long range tech initiatives should focus on five things, said Champoux:

Local leadership – Political will can ensure projects push through despite setbacks.

Collaboration – Moncton had almost no tools to respond to challenges and opportunities of the new economy. It had to collaborate with universities, businesses, the community and other experts to understand technology’s promises and impact.

Integration between government agencies – The municipal government sought provincial and federal assistance.

Private sector engagement – It was vital to get business onboard, Champoux said. It’s the private firms that eventually implement and use of the technology

Strategic infrastructure – To proceed from the planning stage, the municipality needed to commit to building the essential infrastructure.

Fred-eZone

Fredericton, New Brunswick’s capital, was as a “content community with a large university population” until the early 1990s, according to Don Fitzgerald, executive director for strategic initiatives at the city.

He said the economic downturn at the start of that decade eroded industry.  “We were surviving but there was no employment growth and no new firms opening their doors.”

As part of its growth strategy, Fredericton launched e-Novations, a city-owned fibre optic network with more than 70 per cent penetration rates and speeds of up to 18 Mbps.

“We were a knowledge-based community, so nurtured that — using technology to foster its growth,” said Fitzgerald.

Broadband in Fredericton used to cost three times more than in Toronto, but since Fred-eZone launched in 2003, more than 65 per cent of the city has been able to access Wi-Fi services for free.

The infrastructure takes advantage of unused broadband capacity it had on its own network.

“The timing was perfect because we set up our infrastructure way before telcos started suing municipalities for competing with them by providing free broadband,” said Fitzgerald.

While Toronto’s One Zone seeks a $2 million profit by offering Wi-Fi broadband access to business users in the city for a fee, Fred-eZone provides Wi-Fi for the masses at no cost.

“We’re not in this to make a profit,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s pretty hard to calculate the ROI (return of investment) on free Wi-Fi in a park or sidewalk. But the initiative has paid off.”

He said the project has improved local commerce and got out the message that the city is prepared to support business and provide for the tech needs of its residents. “Today, our unemployment rate is below the national average but our population growth rate beats the national average”.

Fredericton has the largest concentration of IT firms in the province. More than 100 companies employ over 1,500 people, with an annual payroll exceeding $120 million.

The city is home to big multinational corporations as well as start-ups.

For example, CGI Group Inc. (Canada’s largest software maker) and New Hampshire-based e-learning software maker Skillsoft collaborate with local entrepreneurs, universities and research institutes. The city also runs simulation training centres.

Such collaboration, Fitzgerald said, is vital to developing the city’s research capabilities and tapping the local IT talent.

Homegrown companies, such as security firms Q1 Labs Inc, CyberSecure Inc., and Bulletproof Solutions Inc., have earned international renown in their field, Fitzgerald said.

“These two cities found out that it takes connections to get ahead,” noted Robert Bell, co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum.

“An intelligent community is not just about having the world’s top universities or the fastest multi-gigabit broadband network. It’s what they do with their assets, how they do it, and why.”  

He said Moncton and Fredericton made a committed effort to break with the past and did it by engaging local and foreign stakeholders. “And they did it because they wanted to build a future for the community.”

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