N.B. offers widespread broadband six months early

New Brunswick enterprises got an early Christmas present on Thursday when the government announced it had completed the deployment of a broadband IP network connecting more than 300 communities six months ahead of schedule.

Reaching 90 per cent of the residential market and 95 per cent of rural New Brunswick business lines, the network, which was set up by local firm Aliant, also connects all health-care centres and 15 First Nations communities. The project began in 2003 and included funding from Aliant, along with the federal and provincial government, which totaled $44.6 million.

Aliant said the network would offer a minimum standard level of 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 640 kilobits per second (Kbps) upload speeds, along with Aliant’s domain name, e-mail, security and entertainment services.

Business New Brunswick manager Sarah Ketcheson said the network will have a big impact on the export-heavy region, which comprised some 26,000 small businesses.

“The trick now is how do they utilize it in a way that most effectively markets their products?” she said. “This is going to be a way to reach those business people in rural communities and ensure they’ve got the capability to be competitive.”

From an enterprise perspective, 1.5 Mbps is enough for many applications, but perhaps not advanced ones such as videoconferencing, said Ronald Gruia, an analyst at Toronto-based Frost & Sullivan Canada.

“It’s not even a matter of doing what’s good for what’s here and right now. It’s future-proofing the network. Otherwise you may end up getting into issues later on,” he said. “For SMBs, I think this is fine . . . you have to start from somewhere.” 

Aliant ISP director Joe Mosher said the company will use compression technologies or extend the buildout of the network if greater bandwidth is necessary, but the challenge was in forecasting demand.

“There’s always a new technology around the corner. When you wait for that, there’s another one,” he said.

Ketcheson said the growth of broadband in the province has already provided an incentive for firms such as Schaumburg, Ill.-based Virtual Agent Services (VAS), a call centre operator which has a Canadian headquarters in Halifax. VAS recently opened another centre in Nackawic, N.B., Ketcheson said, which will be linked to other locations through the new infrastructure. VAS already employs more than 600 people in other parts of the province.

“A couple of years ago their mill shut down. It was a real blow to the community,” she said. “They were reliant on that one industry. In many cases (in New Brunswick) there’s a need to diversify the economy.”

Alcatel, which provided some of the equipment for the network, assisted with the logistics of getting products to deployment sites, according to Mosher. That helped keep the work, which was planned in a three-stage rollout, ahead of schedule. It also helped to have employees in many of the communities where the network was to be set up, he added.

“That makes it easy to do parallel deployments at multiple locations,” he said. “At one point, we would have had up to 10 different crews in the province building this, because we have that kind of presence.”

Mosher said Aliant and the government plan to run workshops that teach local businesses how broadband can improve their operations by increasing sales or reducing costs. Although many rural broadband projects focus on Internet access, he said the project is intended to support a range of activities.

“This is not just a way to get fast access to the World Wide Web. Although it runs on IP, it has way more potential beyond that,” he said. “The examples of that would be IPTV, media on demand, health-care services in radiology – all running on a robust high-bandwidth IP-based network.”

Ketcheson credited the government for stimulating discussion about the potential of broadband in 2002. Gruia likened the situation in New Brunswick to that of Finland, which also had to contend with delivering bandwidth-intensive services over long distances.

“Canada still lagging behind countries like Korea and Japan, where government intervention was essential to stimulate rapid growth in broadband services,” he said. “In Japan, it was almost an issue of national pride.”

The New Brunswick government said the remaining 10 per cent of households in the province that access the Internet through dial-up will turn to two-way broadband satellite, cable and other wireless services to meet their needs.

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