By John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The head of the Columbia Basin Trust says the completion of a fibre-optic line up the Slocan Valley is a significant milestone — but a lot of work remains.
“It’s something to be celebrated,” said Johnny Strilaeff, the president and chief executive officer of the Trust, commenting on a recent ribbon-cutting for the project. “It feels great. We now have a backbone up the valley that’s going to be able to service providers.
“That’s terrific, but it’s not the end. There are still challenges ahead.”
Strilaeff spoke to the Valley Voice after the CBT announced earlier this month it had completed the 125-kilometre-long high-speed internet line up the valley this summer. The $7.9 million cable, which makes the journey from Nakusp to South Slocan buried in trenches underground, hung along hydro poles and laid at the bottom of two lakes, will provide high-speed access to a dozen small communities along the valley.
Strilaeff says the real work will now begin — connecting individual homes to the line.
“It’s one of those things with the issue of connectivity,” he says. “It’s a paradox. The more you do, the harder the job gets.”
This next phase of the project is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars, and the Trust has applied for funding to complete the job, known in the industry as the `last mile.’
“We have a very large proposal before the federal government, with support from the provincial and local governments, which would be for the first of two phases of fibre-to-the-home,” he said. However, he couldn’t reveal a lot of detail of the application as no official announcement has been made.
But he says the proposal “includes a significant portion of the Slocan Valley.”
If anything’s been a frustration for the managers of the project, it’s been trying to understand the federal government’s rules and regulations for funding to support improvements to access, says Strilaeff. Part of the problem is Ottawa went to the big telecom giants to get information about the status of connectivity in the region.
“Spoiler alert — their information was often inaccurate in rural communities,” he says. “The federal government has come to recognize this now and are looking more closely at it… but under the existing application process, we have to use the maps they have available.”
He says those maps create a patchwork of eligibility that will likely be a bit of public relations nightmare.
“We’ll have to explain to residents who are asking, `Why does my neighbour get it and I don’t?”’ he says. “In some communities, on one side of the street they’ll be eligible and not on the other side. That’s all the federal government’s doing.
“Hopefully we can adjust that over time.”
However flawed the maps governing the rollout, Strilaeff says they expect to be able to make an announcement on the next phase of the project soon. And once the announcement is made, the Trust will be able to provide those maps to the public. Residents will be able to check online to see if they won the connectivity lottery up the valley.
Not a long wait
But the new line isn’t going to sit unused while the Trust waits for government funding for its fibre-to-home plan. Strilaeff says they already have some interest from other providers, and some residents of the Valley won’t have to wait long at all to see improvements to their service.
“It’s imminent,” he says. “It is absolutely available now. We have a very capable ISP that’s doing testing now and we are thrilled with what we are hearing as to results.”
While he didn’t want to name the company, locally based Columbia Wireless has already told the Valley Voice it is keenly interested in jumping onto the trunk line — and is even quoted in the CBT’s official press release.
“This will increase internet speeds to all of our existing customer base considerably, and allow us to offer fibre speeds to whole communities where we couldn’t before,” said Ben Leslie, chief executive officer of Columbia Wireless. “It gives everyone a nice, local advantage.”
Strilaeff said another provider is also in the offing, but it was too early to provide details.
A third probable customer is a consortium of the Valley municipal governments — Slocan, Silverton, New Denver and Nakusp — who are banding together to develop a community-owned internet service provider. That provider would both install the fibre-optic line from the trunk to individual homes, and manage and maintain the provision of internet like a utility. (With local elections underway, a spokesperson for the group declined to comment on the issue.)
The Slocan Valley line is only part of the overall project to expand the Trust’s fibre-optic network, which now extends across the East and West Kootenays — an area the size of Austria.
The Trust’s broadband arm also completed a line extension in the East Kootenay, and is just wrapping up two other extensions to their network, from Nelson to Fruitvale, and from Kimberley to Wasa.
When completed, the CBT’s network will extend more than 1,200 kilometres.
“We have a very capable team,” says Strilaeff. “I am proud of the network we have, and how it is functioning. It is clearly delivering benefit now and it’s only going to grow.”
He says next up is improving connections to other networks, to points east, west, and to the US, in order to build redundancy.
“…When these investments are made, it’s not just for the benefit of residents today, but for five, 10, 25 years in the future,” the CBT president says. “So I do see this as a huge success. What’s happened in the Slocan Valley here is terrific — but it’s not the end.”