“Community broadband” success stories: Kaslo’s KiN

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.

Area connected by submarine fibre

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.

3. Organization

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.

Additional links:

Kaslo infoNet Society

Metaviews/Future Fibre profile 

ISPs as Providers of Equitable Connectivity

Recently in the news — Canadians love connectivity and they want it cheaper. We can see this either as an indicator of increasing competition in the sector (thanks to Freedom Mobile), or a sign of how high rates and data caps make Canadians scramble for a deal when it’s offered.

The focus now is on mobile plans, but we’re not having the discussion about an affordable option for residential broadband. As announced in last year’s federal budget, affordable government-approved broadband for low-income Canadians may eventually become available. While there are strong parallels between this approach and 20th century efforts to achieve universal service through cross-subsidization, this will likely not be a universal program. Rather than imposing some sort of “skinny basic” for the internet, the federal Cabinet has made affordable internet a priority, allocated money, and left us waiting on the details.

In a previous post, I wrote about the CRTC’s universal service objective, and how the Commission likes to stay out of setting retail prices for broadband (unless we’re talking about an IPTV service). The CRTC does regulate wholesale internet rates to promote competition, and this is supposed to control prices, but part of the rationale for not intervening directly on retail pricing was to avoid doing something that would “inadvertently hinder the development of further private and public sector initiatives” on affordability. Well, the federal government’s $2.6 million annual program announced last March, can be seen as a public program to nudge private sector initiatives along. The money is meant to help support ISPs that offer low-priced connectivity to low-income families, who will also receive refurbished computers.

This is similar to what Rogers and TELUS have been doing already in select markets, and these companies may end up being able to roll their existing programs into whatever is finalized as the government’s plan with little effort. But if other providers do join (or are compelled to participate in a mandatory program), then this becomes more of an industry norm than a distinguishing virtue. Rogers and TELUS have been trying to behave and stand out as good corporate citizens (Bell’s distinctive efforts in this regard have been championing the issue of mental health).

The discussion is understandably focused on the incumbents here, but let’s not forget there are a host of organizations and ISPs that have long been devoted to a more equitable distribution of connectivity in society: FreeNets & community networks (NCF, VCN, ViFA, Chebucto), publicly-funded rural broadband (like SuperNet, or one-time funding programs like Connecting Canadians and Connect to Innovate), First Nations initiatives, as well as public internet access sites. The federal government’s affordable access program for low-income households was criticized for being developed independent of groups that have been advocating for affordable connectivity in recent years, and following this criticism the proposal was sent back to the design stage to gestate further.

Personally, I love to see programs targeted for low-income Canadians that need them most, but the shelved affordable access proposal was a feather-light welfare policy. This was not the state using the market to achieve a public good — this was the state trying to achieve a public good without imposing any undue burdens on the market, with the private sector invited to participate. It would have encouraged a form of cross-subsidization, where ISPs use wealthier subscribers to subsidize poorer ones. In the monopoly era, cross-subsidization is how universal service (a phone in every home) was achieved. The telco companies had their regional monopolies, and one justification for this monopoly power was that you could take profits from urban areas to subsidize connectivity for more expensive (or less profitable) rural areas. After the monopoly era ended, we shifted to the cultivation of competition and deference to market forces. The societal benefits of internet access for everyone are clear, but the distribution of connectivity is still treated as a corporate responsibility.

This Liberal government is taking its time on this issue — perhaps they see flaws in the previous approach but are reluctant to push a more robust policy.  In the meantime, telecom companies may be less willing to develop their own affordable access programs knowing they may have to adjust to whatever shape government policy takes.

Alberta’s SuperNet

Alberta is home to a remarkable fibre-optic network called the SuperNet, and the provincial government is about to decide what to do with it. This post will briefly summarize how this situation came to be, and what’s at stake in the forthcoming decision about “SuperNet 2.0“.

Just a slice of the SuperNet

At the end of the 1990s, Alberta was riding high on oil revenues and the promise of internet-enabled prosperity. The provincial government decided to invest in a network that would connect government and public buildings (such as schools and medical facilities) across the province. The need for public sector connectivity was combined with the need for rural internet access, and the idea was that last-mile ISPs would be able to plug into the SuperNet as a middle-mile network to reach towns and villages across the province. Economic development would be extended beyond the cities, bridging the digital divide. In those heady days, there was talk of luring Silicon Valley businesses, like Microsoft or Cisco, to rural Alberta. Entrepreneurs and knowledge workers would set up shop in small towns, rural patients could be diagnosed through telehealth, and university lectures could be beamed into remote schools.

The 2000s followed a decade of telecom liberalization and provincial privatization, including privatization of telecom assets (AGT), so the last thing the provincial government wanted was a publicly-owned network. Science and Technology Minister Lorne Taylor (credited with leading the SuperNet’s development) made clear that running telecom networks was the business of private industry, not government. The CTO of Alberta Innovation and Science emphasized that it was definitely not a government network. Government wasn’t going to build it, wouldn’t own it, and wouldn’t manage it. The private sector would be unleashed and competition would take care of the rest. All government had to do was throw in $200 million and set the terms of the deal.

As Nadine Kozak writes, the SuperNet was a contract, and not public policy. The contract was signed without public input or legislative debate. Citizens would be consumers of the network, and didn’t need to know the details of the deal, which was complicated and confidential. The contract would have to be renegotiated after construction fell behind and private sector partners Bell and Axia had a legal fight about not living up to their respective terms. The network was eventually completed without fanfare in 2005, with Bell eating the additional costs of the delay. Following another renegotiation of the contract in 2005, Axia would run the SuperNet for thirteen years (including the three-year extension granted in 2013), and the government would have the option of assuming ownership of the rural network after thirty.

Public infrastructure in many rural communities did receive a considerable boost in connectivity thanks to SuperNet, but the province never did become Silicon Valley North, and the last mile of the network only extended to public sector clients. It was imagined that private ISPs would connect to the network and compete with each other over the last mile for residential and business customers (see below), but in much of rural Alberta this never happened. Local incumbent TELUS preferred to use its own network, even choosing to (over)build additional facilities in places where it would have been cheaper to use SuperNet.

Meanwhile, government responsibility for the network shifted or split between departments through successive reorganizations. In 2010, Premier Redford stated, “We haven’t focused on it as a priority … (It) seems to have been more of a problem between government departments not wanting to take ownership, or not knowing exactly who’s the leader”. For those who don’t have to deal with it directly, SuperNet is just another piece of the invisible infrastructure that keeps our world running, and today, most Albertans have never heard of it.

Cybera CEO Robin Winsor shows the CRTC a piece of the SuperNet – Nov. 24, 2014

There are also some people who know about SuperNet, but don’t have entirely positive things to say about it. Robin Winsor, head of Cybera, stated that “although many good things have come from the build of the SuperNet, its capacity has been vastly under-realized and under-utilized“. Axia, the company that operates the network, has long worked to counter widespread “misconceptions” about the SuperNet, like the “myth” that the network is expensive and difficult to access. Axia has often ended up as the face of the network and the target of many of these complaints, even through in many cases the faults lie in the design and execution of the SuperNet contract, for which provincial governments have been ultimately responsible.

Axia is a remarkable company in the Canadian telecom industry,  and the SuperNet contract was key to making it what it is today. Axia has since promoted or developed similar open-access fibre networks in several countries, but seems to have recently re-focused on Alberta. When it comes to the SuperNet, its prime responsibility has been to run the network (as Axia SuperNet Ltd.). In this capacity, Axia serves public sector clients, and acts as an “operator-of-operators” for ISPs wishing to connect to SuperNet for backhaul. In line with the principles of running an open-access network, Axia is not supposed to compete with the last-mile ISPs, or offer internet access to residential and business clients through SuperNet. Axia has also helped produce lots promotional content over the years about the SuperNet’s accomplishments and the “unlimited possibilities” offered by this totally amazing network.

On the other hand, Axia’s actions indicate that the company clearly recognizes the limitations of SuperNet, and has worked to address these through Axia Connect Ltd., a separate business endeavour from Axia SuperNet Ltd. (see this recent CRTC appearance by CEO Art Price on the distinction). What Axia SuperNet Ltd. cannot legally do (act as a last-mile ISP), Axia Connect can and does. Whereas Axia SuperNet Ltd. does not compete with private industry in the last mile, Axia Connect has been putting many millions of dollars into last-mile connections, focusing its efforts on deploying FTTP to parts of Alberta hereto neglected by incumbents. In the process, Axia is helping resolve the digital divide in a way that the SuperNet could not, but it is also competing with other approaches to the same problem, such as those currently being pursued through the Calgary Regional Partnership.

The distinction between Axia SuperNet and Axia Connect has kept the company compliant with the terms of the SuperNet contract, but claiming that Axia Connect’s FTTP deployments are “made possible by having access to the SuperNet” doesn’t help the public draw this distinction. Axia’s brand in Alberta is intimately linked to SuperNet, and for the first time, we are forced to consider what a decoupling might look like. This is because the SuperNet contract is once again up for renewal, except this time, Axia is not being granted a simple extension. Even if the company successfully wins the contract for the next term, the government seems to be looking at a “new vision” for the deal.

In short, the situation in Alberta is as follows: The SuperNet is legacy infrastructure, largely built or acquired from existing fibre assets in the early 2000s, and for now it should still be a valuable network with a lot of potential. Observers from other parts of Canada have sometimes looked at it with envy, but the project’s history has been troubled, and SuperNet has only achieved part of its original vision. The existing (and “increasingly-out-of-date“) contract expires in June 2018, with a decision on SuperNet 2.0 expected soon, and Axia, Bell, TELUS, and Zayo competing for the contract. Will a traditional incumbent become the government’s private sector partner? How messy would a transfer or responsibilities from Axia be, should the company lose the bid? If Axia wins, how will the deal be restructured to address the shortcomings of SuperNet 1.0? These are the big questions right now.

Meanwhile, broadband is a hot topic in rural Alberta, with active regional discussions, like an upcoming Digital Futures Symposium in Cochrane, the related Alberta Broadband Toolkit, municipal collaboration through the Calgary Regional Partnership, and broadband studies being carried out by the REDAs. TELUS has also been active with fibre upgrades, and there is a “land grab” underway as rural communities examine competing models of connectivity and decide how best to meet their needs.  Some communities are trying to convince Axia Connect to build them a local network (by demonstrating there are enough interested subscribers), while others are collaborating on a middle-mile backhaul option (skipping the SuperNet), or considering investing in a publicly-owned last-mile network (usually a choice between dark fibre, lit fibre, and wireless). It’s hardly a broadband gold rush out there in rural Alberta, but this is the most exciting I’ve seen it since I started paying attention several years ago.

Lots of dimensions here left to cover, and new developments expected. More Alberta explorations and updates to follow!