Local grain co. offers high-speed Internet to Saskatchewan

Commonly known for its expertise in handling and marketing grain, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool Inc. is getting into the high-speed Internet business and is planning to offer fast wireless access to thousands of rural prairie residents.

Thanks to a long-term agreement with Victoria, B.C.-based VCom Inc., announced last week, the “Pool” will install antennas on the top of many of its grain elevators throughout Saskatchewan. The service will be provided by YourLink Inc., a VCom subsidiary.

Saskatchewan Wheat Pool information technology general manager Mike Brooks says that the company now provides access at 42 locations, and by June 2007, more than 100 sites will provide wireless access at a range of up to approximately 25 miles.

“This is laying the foundation for a comprehensive strategy at the Pool where we’re going to start to offer more interactive services and solutions to the customer via the Internet,” said Brooks.

However, once the expanded network is completed, the Pool plans to offer high-speed access to anyone, whether or not they are customers of the Pool. Even potential Pool competitors will be allowed to subscribe to the service, Brooks said.

“We’re going to try to enable the whole rural economy, regardless of who the actual subscriber is,” he said. “We believe it will have a significant impact in terms of the rural lifestyle.”

Brooks said that the Pool has dealt with various providers in the past, some of whom have been transient.

“Little wireless companies start up, they don’t make it, they go away,” he said. “But with YourLink, from the beginning of the pilot (project), we found a partner that really had the vision that we did.”

VCom chief financial officer Mike Barry says the Pool’s elevators are well sited for high-speed wireless antennas. While they are surrounded by farms, they are some distance away from towns where DSL or cable Internet might be available.

“What that means is that they’re not well-served by the telephone services that are available to most communities,” said Barry.

The network will use VCom’s Broadband Wireless Internet Network (BWIN) as well as its newly-developed WiMAX systems.

YourLink will rely on its existing Saskatchewan backbone network, which consists of both radio and fibre links, to re-broadcast from the tops of grain elevators. (These days, most elevators are 10-storey, concrete structures, rather than the traditional red icons known to all Canadians from their calendar photographs.)

High-speed Internet is in great demand by farmers, especially as farms consolidate, Barry said.

“More and more farmers are selling crops that are not part of the wheat board system, and they do that by actively trading those accounts,” Barry said. “Usually they prefer to sell their own goods on the mercantile exchanges, either in Winnipeg or Chicago.”

For that, fast access to current prices is invaluable.

“It’s difficult for farmers who do not have access to high-speed Internet to get that information, Barry said.

Farmers also benefit in other ways from high-speed access.

“Of course, they have families as well,” Barry said. “The kids want the same benefits of the Internet that their urban friends have.”

More than just farms are interested in high-speed access, he added, noting that many businesses on the outskirts of rural towns have no DSL or cable service.

Prices will be competitive, in the range of $45 monthly for the typical individual user, Barry said, adding that other packages will be available. Speeds will be up to 27 megabits per second.

VCom’s hardware is designed and manufactured in Canada, Barry said, apart from some printed circuit boards that are “stuffed” elsewhere. About 20 VCom programmers spent three years writing the WiMAX media access control software, he added.

“We’re quite proud that we in fact manufacture products in Saskatoon, and ship them to China,” Barry said. “That’s not the normal direction of manufactured products.”

VCom and Saskatchewan Wheat Pool are both publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

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