Provincial rollout proves fibre optics not the only possibility

While Alberta is sticking to its ambitious plan to lay down thousands of kilometres of fibre-optic cable for a high-speed network, a neighbouring province is using a mix of DSL, satellite and wireless to connect users in rural and remote areas.

Saskatchewan is in the process of rolling out CommunityNet

II, a network based on wireless technology that will bring broadband access to at least 71 communities with populations of more than 100 people. The work will involve wireless connections at 57 towers located around the province and will be done in collaboration with SaskTel. When the rollout is finished over the next three years, the service will be available to 86 per cent of Saskatchewan’s residential population.

The original CommunityNet, which was completed in 2000, has already brought high-speed access to 366 communities, linking 834 educational facilities, 310 health-care centres and hundreds of government offices. SaskTel will have invested a total of $173 million in Community-Net I and II.

In Alberta, meanwhile, efforts to construct a fibre-optic network called SuperNet to connect about 400 communities has met with repeated problems and setbacks, including a lawsuit between Bell Canada and Axia NetMedia, the two firms contracted to manage the project. The Alberta government recently announced a revised schedule that would see the network completely lit by September.

Richard Murray, executive director of policy and planning at the Information Technology Office in Regina, said CommunityNet predated SuperNet and so wasn’t influenced by it, but he said he is sympathetic to the challenges Alberta has been facing. 

“”I know they’ve had problems and I really feel badly for them,”” he said. “”It’s a difficult thing to roll out a network like this.””

Although CommunityNet includes some fibre, Murray admitted it is nowhere near the estimated 6,000 lines SuperNet is expected to require. That wouldn’t have been cost effective for Saskatchewan, he said.

“”To do what we did, we had to look at a mix of fibre where it made sense, DSL where it made sense, satellite where it made sense,”” he said.

For the most part, DSL has met most CommunityNet users’ needs in terms of access, said SaskTel spokeswoman Michelle Englot.

“”Our limitation with the DSL connection is within four km of the switch,”” she said. “”We had all of the rural communities with populations of 800 or more being served with the DSL, but in order to increase that, you need to go to the wireless.””

Geography a key factor

Gartner Canada analyst Elroy Jopling said the choice of network technology ultimately comes down to the geography of the region involved and what they want to achieve.

“”Is it best to have as much bandwidth as possible? That’s always the optimum,”” he said. “”Often what happens with DSL, though, is you get better coverage in less time expending less dollars.””

Other parts of Canada have been successful with fibre-optic rollouts that are much smaller in scale than SuperNet, but which are designed to meet similar objectives.

For example, Prince Edward Island’s Department of Education added the last school to a network connecting 45 of its schools. The project, which involved about 475 km of fibre, would span P.E.I. almost end-to-end and back again. The department worked with local provider Eastlink to set the network up. 

Bob Andrews, P.E.I.’s director of technology for learning, said the network has been a big improvement over the Frame Relay services the province used to provide its schools.

“”It was a frustration for our clients, our students and our teachers,”” he said. “”This gives them the ability to look at video on demand, distance education. From support point of view, it gives us the ability to do remote support, which makes us more efficient to their clients. We can also decentralize some functions such as e-mail.””

David Caldwell, Eastlink’s director of business sales, said the province is seeing a strong demand for high-speed services, particularly in areas such as retail or call centre firms. 

“”Fibre was fundamentally where we needed to be,”” he said.

Jopling said, however, that DSL has continued to offer more performance than experts originally thought possible.

“”Fibre isn’t the only way to go,”” he said.

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