Bell Canada was aware for some time that the original deadline for the ambitious SuperNet was unfeasible and was quietly working out a new plan when the Alberta government stepped in with a do-or-die deadline of September.
deadline for the plan to provide high-speed Internet access to hundreds of communities across the province was January. Luke Ouellette, Alberta’s Minister of Restructuring and Government Efficiency, spoke out earlier this week with the revised deadline. Failure to meet it could cost Bell Canada a $100-million performance bond, he said.
Bell and its SuperNet partner Axia NetMedia have drawn up a new contract with Government of Alberta and revised their roles in order to meet the new deadline. Bell is responsible for the base communities, i.e. the province’s largest municipal centres, but has turned over its obligations in the 402 smaller communities affected by SuperNet over to Axia. The Calgary-based firm is now responsible for testing and commissioning (lighting the fibre-optic network and connecting citizens) in those communities.
Stephen Wetmore, group president of national markets for Bell Canada, said it became apparent in the fall of last year that the January deadline would never be met.
“As we get to the end, we realized, ‘My God, we’re going to have to light up all these customers, enter into service level agreements, document everything that had been done,’” said Wetmore. “In the last 12 months, I think we had 150 or 200 different additional locations to go through. We could fill a warehouse up with documentation from this project alone.”
Wetmore added, “We’ve spent almost four months trying to figure out how to change all our processes.”
The original plan was to build the entire network, then turn on the individual communities. Wetmore likened it to building an apartment complex. Rather than letting people move into it as each unit was completed, they waited until every inch of the building was finished before opening the front door to tenants.
“That actually slowed down the overall project,” said Wetmore. “It was during that process that I think a few customers and some of the public started to phone the government and say, ‘What are the delays and why can’t we get connected?’”
During a renegotiation process that has spanned several weeks, Bell and Axia came to the conclusion that the solution was to “get one company out of the way and just get one organization focused on it,” said Wetmore. “We’re going to stand back (and) support Axia throughout this whole thing. Obviously our folks will be working with them closely but (we’ll) let them take the lead to do it.”
Under the old arrangement, both parties would visit the rural centres in order to get them connected. It became difficult to coordinate those efforts, said Wetmore, and resulted in delays.
In order to accomplish its new responsibilities, Axia has hired new subcontractors, said Axia spokesperson Dawn Tingling. She would not identify who or how many companies were being brought in, but said they were most likely “local support. . . . We’re putting everything we’ve got at this and we’re confident we’re going to make the deadlines.”
This is not the first time Bell and Axia have revised their respective roles. In 2003, disagreements over contractual obligations put the SuperNet project on hold. It started up again following consultations with Alberta’s Department of Innovation and Science. Under a new agreement, Construction contracts originally slated for Axia were turned over to Bell.
Bell met with obstacles at every turn during the project, said Wetmore. There were problems with drilling, land rights, public parks, and other unforeseen complications.
“When you’re trying to do something that nobody else has done, we shouldn’t just assume that 100 years of experience will get us there. Laws have changed, regulations, policies, everything. We’ve learned an awful lot,” he said.
A spokesperson from Alberta Restructuring and Government Efficiency said that the latest agreement has “given us optimism” and is “streamlining the process of getting (the communities) turned on.”