What happens when a community decides to take connectivity into its own hands and builds itself a broadband network? This question has been raised in past months with the pursuit of ConnectTO in Toronto, which may be the topic of a future post. The “poster child” of successful community broadband in Canada has often been identified as Olds, AB, but as I discussed in a previous post, the future of that particular project is in considerable doubt. In the United States, recent years have indeed produced numerous community broadband success stories, so how about Canada?
First of all, we need to spend a bit of time defining what we are talking about. Unlike a municipal network, which is typically owned by a municipality, a “community network” can encompass this and many other possibilities, including co-operatives, not-for-profits, or other ‘community-based’ organizations. The word ‘community’ tends to be used for its positive connotations than its descriptive accuracy, and can suggest a “spurious unity” of similarly-thinking people (Calhoun, 1998, p. 34). Rather than representing the will of some larger community, these broadband projects are often the result of a small number of champions who successfully mobilize resources and obtain the support of key political actors — despite differences and disagreements among the local population.
For me, community broadband is defined by the fact that it is (1) locally-based — rooted in the needs of people in a particular place or region, and that it (2) serves some articulation of the public good or collective interest of these people. Typically what this means is that residents, businesses, or government actors in some location feel ill-served by incumbent providers, and rather than waiting for these incumbents to improve the situation, they take matters into their own hands. This situation often arises in rural regions that are less profitable, and hence less of a priority for incumbents (which is why ConnectTO is so unusual). Unfortunately, rural areas are also the sorts of places where there tends to be a shortage of people with the skills required to build and operate a broadband network.
This is why I was so intrigued by a presentation that Tim Ryan gave to the BC Broadband Association in 2019, describing the do-it-yourself approach of the Kaslo infoNet Society (KiN), that involved locally-trained staff installing fibre and wireless for far less than is typically budgeted for such projects. Later that summer, I visited Kaslo to talk further with Tim and see things for myself. As is typically the case in Canada, the construction season is weather dependent, and KiN was busy digging and laying fibre before the freeze hit.
They’ve continued this work ever since, laying more fibre underwater to connect shoreline communities along North Kootenay Lake, as well as within Kaslo itself.
This is now effectively a regional network, connecting residents on both sides of a narrow mountain lake, over roughly 50km. Over the years, the technology underpinning the network has shifted from largely wireless to largely fibre-based, enabled by some innovative underwater deployments in the lake. Laying fibre in water poses some challenges, but it eliminates many of the land-based headaches over rights-of-way and infrastructure access (roadways, poles etc.).
One of the lessons here is that the specific technologies used to provide internet access should depend on the local circumstances. Fibre can be installed in different ways, and there are still situations where other technologies make better sense. KiN’s approach gives you a sense of just how low fibre deployment costs can be pushed in Canada. The cost of the actual cable tends be relatively minor — it’s getting that cable into the ground (or up on poles) that creates the expense. Aerial fibre involves getting approval from whoever (telco or power utility) owns the utility poles, and paying for rent or upgrades to the poles. Burying fibre can create different headaches in terms of approvals and overlapping infrastructure, plus the major expense of digging up the ground. On land, Ryan has claimed KiN can get trenching costs down to $7 [CAD] / meter. In lakewater, this cost can be a lot less, but most regions do not have the benefit of a long lakeshore geography in which to deploy backhaul.
Beyond the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building a community network, it is indeed possible to use success in one particular case to generalize more broadly. Below are some key determinants of success for a community broadband project, building on some Tim Ryan’s personal views about what has contributed to the success of KiN.
1. Backhaul (backbone connectivity)
The other elements below are all important, but if they are missing they can be developed. Without a backbone however, the network is a non-starter. Any community network is going to need to be plugged into the global internet somewhere, and its bandwidth is going to depend on the bandwidth of that connection to a fibre backbone. In an ideal situation, the community network finds a way to reach an internet exchange where it can connect with content providers and world-spanning networks. However, for much of rural Canada this is simply not possible. Satellites will open some possibilities in future years, but for the foreseeable future the viability of a new network is going to depend on access to existing infrastructure that can carry traffic regionally and globally. This may be the local telco incumbent(s), who will likely be competing with any new network for customers. While incumbents are mandated to provide wholesale network access in Canada, the terms of this mandated access do not provide a lucrative opportunity for community networks. The most successful approaches for community networks involve alternative backbones, or leasing a fibre path directly to an exchange if possible.
In Kaslo, KiN had been relying on incumbent TELUS for connectivity until 2014, when CBBC (a subsidiary of Columbia Basin Trust) extended its backbone to the town. This shifted the economics of broadband in the region significantly, and KiN then proceeded with its ongoing fibre deployments.
2. People and skills
Having the right people, with practical skills, experience, and personal connections ends up being valuable in a project that is going to be difficult in a best-case scenario, and which will likely depend on a small number of bodies to keep things moving. There is a path forward for community-based groups who want to build a network but don’t know how to go about it, but this can involve hiring telecom consultants and a steep or expensive learning curve. Effective project champions and relevant technical skills among community members are enormous assets. Local governments that have in-house networking expertise and experience managing infrastructure can draw on those for broadband projects, while groups outside of government are fortunate if they involve members with an understanding of telecom networks.
In the early 2000s, Tim Ryan was trying to carry out business from Kaslo over a limited internet connection, and his background in IT helped him imagine how things could be better. He joined KiN in 2012, where other members also had technical skills, but as Ryan stated “There is a perception that that fibre connectivity is complex … (but) it’s 90% ditch-digging and 10% technology”. In terms of critical skills, in his view they are: “Critical skill number one: ditch digging. Critical skill number two: network management. That was contributed by the existing ISP [KiN]. Critical skill number three: an understanding of how optical networking technology is assembled, and we had two people in the community that knew how”. These skills gave the project’s participants the confidence to proceed — knowing that building a fibre network was possible: “Optical technology on the face of it, is as opaque as brain surgery and rocket science. In fact, it’s not that difficult, but most people don’t know that.” Having the knowledge to imagine what is possible helps to get a project started, but being able to train local staff in the required skills ends up being important to keep costs down (and circulate money locally) while maintaining local autonomy.
There are examples of local networks built by a committed individual who wants better connectivity and extends this to their neighbors, but beyond this scale, some sort of larger organization is required. An ISP could be organized along many different lines: for-profits, not-for-profits, co-operatives, or public utilities have all had some success meeting local needs. If possible, an advantage comes from being able to work through already-established organizations. In Kaslo, KiN had been incorporated as a not-for-profit since 1996, when it had offered dial-up service. While network technology had moved on, KiN retained a couple hundred subscribers and an organizational that could be built upon for a future network. In Olds, the OICRD became the vehicle for envisioning, developing, and eventually owning its fibre network. Organizations coordinate individual action into collective efforts, and as legal entities they can do things that individuals cannot — such as applying for funding. But organizations also require internal governance and maintenance (the non-technical kind), and can always benefit from a shared vision and collective enthusiasm.
4. Political support
To some extent (often a large one) an ISP is a political actor, and must by necessity maintain relationships with different levels of government: the CRTC and ISED, provincial ministries (land use, transportation), public utilities, local councils and municipal departments. ISPs can be enlisted towards public policy goals, such as connecting public facilities (a valuable “anchor tenant” for a community network), tackling the digital divide, or facilitating economic development. In Kaslo, KiN connects the Village Hall, Langham Cultural Centre, and Library, and has made the most of being a local actor in a small place. As Tim Ryan put it, KiN’s early expansions benefitted from being in “a small village with a village government that knows who you are, that you can have a face-to-face conversion at pretty much any point, and business can be done around a coffee table, first thing in the morning, and you can carry on and get on with it”.
Construction and maintenance depends on municipal right-of-ways. If the ISP is municipally-owned, its fortunes are tied to the decisions of municipal government. In Olds, the City didn’t own the network but helped secure the loans needed to build it, and was able to exercise control by calling in these loans when political attitudes towards the network changed. While KiN has not been dependent on its municipality for funding, it has benefited from access to right-of-ways by maintaining a working relationship with local government (a municipal access agreement is key) — so that when the Village is expanding its sewer system, it’s possible to extend fibre as part of the process.
Incumbent resistance can also play out at the political level, and while Canada has not seen the sorts of lawmaking that US incumbents have lobbied for to ban community networks, other kinds of political battles do play out. A 2014 article from the Valley Voice recounts how “Telus tried to negotiate a secret deal with [Kaslo] Village council. The corporation promised a $500,000 upgrade to existing copper lines… Former Mayor Greg Lay says he fought for KiN’s right to be the point-of-presence provider rather than having to open it up to bidding from contractors outside the community. ‘I had to say, we support local people, I don’t care what Telus is offering,’ says Lay”. As much as political involvement can be a liability for telecom networks, it can also be a shield for local actors against larger interests.
5. Material resources
Community networks of significant scale don’t come cheap — millions may be required. KiN has found ways of doing it for less, but even in Kaslo securing funding is a major part of the challenge. There are sound economic reasons why incumbents “underserve” certain populations — without government support for construction many rural connectivity projects would either never be profitable, or only profitable in the long term. Writing and managing grant applications can be a full-time job, and navigating the funding landscape is complex (in BC, there are resources available online and funding is also available through federal programs). It helps to have some funds available early, so that work can begin without waiting for big grants to come in. And because of the large amounts of money involved, it can make a huge difference if a project can find ways to source cheaper materials, effectively adapt to the terrain, and spend less on labor (this includes using local workers or having supporters willing to volunteer their time/equipment). I think all of these factors have helped achieve successes for KiN, and could make a difference elsewhere.