Telecom execs debate community broadband perils

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – Community-based broadband projects are fraught with peril, according to a panel that spoke Monday at the Telecom Summit, but their limitations are defined more by organizational challenges than anything to do with technology.

Wi-Fi projects like the one currently underway in Toronto may be viable, but it’s the ownership structures and accountability issues that may limit their future development, execs said. Panelists disagreed over the best way to accomplish broadband rollouts, particularly into rural and remote parts of Canada, but reached consensus on the point that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

According to Bill St. Arnaud, senior director of advanced networks for Canarie, a facilities-based approach like CSEVM (Commission des Services Électriques de la Ville de Montreal) has a proven track record. The City of Montreal set up the CSEVM in 1907 as a means to manage a series of conduits that run underground. These millions of metres of linear conduits are now being rented out to carriers at a few dollars a metre and can be used to supply broadband to thousands of public and private buildings.

By leaning on existing infrastructure advantages, communities can reduce the cost of broadband delivery mechanisms, said St. Arnaud. Where the logic behind city-wide projects becomes muddy is when cities want to become their own telecommunications companies. Aside from security and management issues, “I don’t think cities have the scale, nor can they move on Internet-time to meet demand,” said St. Arnaud.

He noted that municipal Wi-Fi projects are more likely to compete with 3G broadband from cellular carriers than cable or DSL offerings, but also that they present “real technical challenges.”

The number of competitive forces operating in urban centres like Toronto is helping to keep high-speed costs low, said Sasktel‘s Diana Milenkovic. Those forces aren’t present in more remote areas, so cost management can be a challenge.

Municipalities can be forced to compete with one another in order to qualify for government funding, said Milenovic, senior vice-president of marketing and mobility for the Saskatchewan telco. The result is patchy coverage and uneven levels of service between communities. Similarly, municipally-funded Wi-Fi projects can founder due to lack of homegrown skill and capital.

Milenovic touted Sasktel’s own broadband project, CommunityNet, which provides connectivity to 300 rural communities in the province. “Essentially every community with 100 people and a school has access to broadband,” she said.

According to Milenovic, Sasktel currently has about 86 per cent broadband coverage across the province. The aim is to reach 95 per cent or higher. “The next steps are going to be difficult, but we’re up for the challenge.”

Joe Mosher, director of Aliant ISP, said that his telco currently provides broadband to about 80 per cent of the territory in Atlantic Canada that it serves. The need for more public access to broadband is becoming apparent, he said.

“The opportunity here . . . is to figure out what you can do with broadband beyond high-speed Internet,” he said. Upcoming services like IP-based television, media on demand services, and the growth of public and private intranets are placing a premium on bandwidth, particularly for underserved areas. “There are a lot of other applications that can be made practical.”

The Internet is already becoming a 24/7 service for home users, said Dave Caputo, co-founder, president and CEO of Sandvine, as more people treat their PCs as always-on file servers for the purposes of using peer-to-peer networks.

A growing majority of Internet use is dedicated to P2P services, said Caputo. His network equipment company recently conducted a study based on 2.4 million subscribers across more than a dozen nations and discovered that 55 per cent of bandwidth use is taken up by P2P services like BitTorrent and Gnutella. Only about 32 per cent is devoted to run-of-the-mill Internet browsing. In the future bandwidth will be taken up by video over IP (like that provided by popular site YouTube) and Web 2.0 applications. Malware threats are also sure to evolve and gobble up more bandwidth, he said.

Almost regardless of how it is delivered and how people consume it, the need for more bandwidth is apparent, said St. Arnaud. While not all panelists agreed with him, he said that one model that has met with success is currently in use in a Swedish community. There, broadband users are also its owners. As part of their mortgage, home owners can purchase last-mile infrastructure for the equivalent of $20 a month. They also have the choice of 20 different providers for about $20 a month, making the overall investment a monthly fee of $40.

“Banks understand that this isn’t a risk investment,” he said, “and are willing to do the financing. . . . We think it’s a model that will promote true broadband to the home.”

The 2006 Canadian Telecom Summit runs through Wednesday.

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