Trouble in Olds

Canada’s best-known community network has met its existential threat — municipal politics. O-NET, based in Olds, achieved national fame back in 2013 as a community-owned ISP offering gigabit internet, in competition with local incumbents (TELUS and Shaw). If you are interested in community/municipal broadband in Canada, you will at some point have come across a version of the Olds story or heard reference to the “Olds model“. In general, O-NET has been presented as a success story, but this is a “success” that needs to be qualified. It’s remarkable that a community network was able wire up a town of Olds’ size with fibre and establish itself as a full-service ISP. But the long-term financial picture has never been clear, given the expense of building the network. O-NET successfully achieved more than many community broadband projects in Canada, but like many such projects, its future depends on local political support. Instead, the last several months have seen political conflict and uncertainty.

I haven’t been to Olds since 2014 (when I helped with a “citizen planning circle” about broadband) or spoken with anyone affiliated with O-NET since 2017. Local media (Olds Albertan/Mountain View Today) have been my way of keeping in touch, and based on the news it appears that after years of fading into the background of local politics, O-NET has recently become a major object of contention. On May 22, 2020, Olds Town Council issued a statement calling in $14 million in loans related to the build, and pushing for increased oversight. Subsequent discussions took place in closed Council sessions as well as through public allegations. Most recently, Town Council has created a broadband investment committee to decide the project’s future. So far the committee has met behind closed doors, and there has been public disagreement over its makeup (specifically, the exclusion of Coun. Mitch Thomson, who has long played an important role in the Olds fibre project).

It wasn’t meant to be like this. In fact, a key reason why O-NET’s relationship with the Town of Olds is so difficult to explain is because of the way that the organizational/ownership structure was meant to provide some independence from Town politics. O-NET is not a municipal ISP in the straightforward sense — it (and its owners) have been a separate organization from the Town. However, the funding required to build the network depended on the Town’s support, which has cut annual funding and called in loans given to the Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development (OICRD) or Olds Institute (OI). This non-profit organization “oversees Olds Fibre Ltd., a for-profit business that owns O-NET“. You see, the for-profit O-NET is really a creation of the Olds Institute (specifically, its Technology Committee), a “non-profit community and economic development organization” that had the Town of Olds as one of its four founding members. The project champions and volunteers that worked on establishing the community network benefited from the support of municipal politicians, but until now the Town limited itself to a supporting role. This included supporting O-NET in 2010 and 2014 when it required an additional $14 million to complete the fibre build — the Town was able to borrow the money from the Alberta Capital Finance Authority and then loan it to OI. O-NET used the funding to get its network built, but thereby became deeply indebted to the Town, which has recently pulled on the purse strings. It’s had to know where all of this will lead, but there is certainly a political effort in Olds to do something different with how the fibre project has been managed. To the extent that the Town’s CAO Michael Merritt would comment on whether there might be a future divestment from O-NET, he blandly stated: “The town is working with Olds Fibre/O-NET to determine the next steps“.

Regardless of what the future holds, anyone bringing up fibre in Olds as community network “success story” should probably add a significant footnote (which is essentially what this blog post should be considered for a chapter in my forthcoming book).

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