For the past few years, one of the most intriguing and exciting public connectivity projects has been underway along Canada’s Pacific Coast. Born of the fusion of two proposals — one from Prince Rupert’s municipally-owned telco CityWest, and the other from the Strathcona Regional District (the SRD, administered from Campbell River, Vancouver Island) – the Connected Coast project will lay fibre from Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert, down the Pacific Coast, and around Vancouver Island (map). This is an ambitious build for the parties involved to undertake, with the potential to make a big difference in a lot of places that would otherwise be waiting for broadband. Because of funding constraints, it is on a strict timeline for completion (2021). Assuming everything goes well with the subsea portion, the success will ultimately depend on what happens when the cable reaches the shore.
I visited Vancouver Island in June to attend the final three presentations and meetings the SRD was conducting within its territory: in Tahsis, Gold River, and Cortes Island. Of the three, Cortes is the only area that currently has cell coverage, and availability of wireline depends on where one lives. Right now, internet access is often provided across a backbone of microwave links, or over satellite.
As explained at the community meetings, on the SRD’s side the Connected Coast project began from the expressed need for connectivity from local representatives across the District. It became an infrastructure project after the SRD was informed by a telecom consultant that improvements in the last mile could only help as far as there was a backbone available to connect to. Because the funding is limited to building this backbone, the SRD can only facilitate and instigate the last mile, leaving this to other local parties (TELUS was not a participant at the meetings).
Basically, the plan is for an open-access, middle-mile network. Open access is a condition of the funding (as it is for many publicly-funded backbones), so in theory, any last-mile ISP will be able to connect to the Connected Coast backbone. The extent to which this happens will depend a lot on local conditions, and given that these are ‘underserved’ communities, this isn’t a retail market with many competitors. If incumbents choose to pursue their own builds independently, independent ISPs (or community networks) will need to step up and find the resources to bridge the last mile.
In addition to talking specifics with local ISPs and letting residents know about the new cable arriving at their shores, this was also an opportunity for local residents to to ask questions, imagine the possibilities that greater access to broadband could bring, and to voice concerns. This was especially the case on Cortes, where the meeting included a number of people strongly supportive what Connected Coast could provide, as well as opposition from those who don’t see connectivity as an unbridled good (including over fears that cell towers and radiation might follow the wired infrastructure). All in all, it was great to have a reason to visit these communities, and development of the Connected Coast project remains one to watch.