Municipal leaders from Nakusp and the Slocan Valley are forming a consortium to provide ‘last mile’ high-speed internet connections to much of the region.
Representatives from Nakusp, New Denver, Silverton and Slocan met June 10 with the Columbia Basin Broadband Corporation (CBBC) to explain their plan.
“Our goal is to provide a fibre link to every taxable household or business premises, from the trunk line to their door,” says Silverton Mayor Colin Ferguson.
The project is tentatively called SMART-Net – short for the Slocan Municipal and Regional Technical Network. Ferguson says it’s the Slocan Valley’s equivalent of Kaslo infoNet, which has provided high-speed fibre-optic service to the North Kootenay Lake region since 2014.
The June 10 meeting was to get all parties “on the same page,” said Ferguson.
“The communities recognize the great work the CBBC has done installing the fibre-optic trunk line,” he told the Valley Voice. “We are trying to take up the torch from them and make their goal of bridging the regional internet divide a reality.”
Ferguson says with the CBBC’s support for their plan, the communities agreed at the meeting to take the next step: to incorporate into an organization that can complete the last mile work and manage the system afterward.
“We’re looking at incorporating as a non-profit municipal corporation, which is probably the next step for us,” he says. “We have to get that agreement finalized between all the communities, make it formal, and then we hope to potentially register as an internet service provider.”
An ISP would manage the delivery of the service and customer accounts.
Internet as public utility
The CBBC began the nearly $10 million project to build a 120-kilometre high-speed fibre-optic line from Playmor Junction in the south to Shoreholme, just north of Nakusp, in 2019. It’s an effort to bring high-speed service to a region underserved by private telecommunication companies. Installation work is now mostly complete and testing has begun on the line, nearly a year before its projected completion date.
However, the problem of the last mile – how to get individual properties connected to that trunk line – remains a sticking point. Linking existing homes and businesses is a huge logistic challenge, and could cost tens of millions more.
While at least one private internet service provider has shown interest in providing last mile service from the Slocan Valley trunk line, the municipal governments see Kaslo’s experience as an opportunity for them. The KiN network has created steady local jobs, kept prices down and provided new economic opportunities for the community. The project could also provide a utility-like revenue stream in the long term for local governments.
“All that money could be ploughed back into the community, and back into the network,” says Ferguson. “It’s definitely financially viable. You can do the simple arithmetic on the back of an envelope.”
The service would be user-defined – customers would only pay for what they use or need.
“Let’s say you just want to use email,” says Ferguson. “It would be just like your water bill or your hydro bill – you only use a small amount, you pay a small amount. Use a lot and you pay more.”
Further, Ferguson thinks the service might serve a public good.
“Right now, Canada has one of the highest costs for internet, and one of the lowest levels of service,” he says. “It’s scandalous.”
Ferguson says the Kaslo infoNet Society has offered whatever level of advice and support SMART-Net might need.
He says the idea of municipal governments working together to get the connection from the main trunk line to people’s homes is coming together quickly. Volunteers have been using GPS to map out the scope of the job for the last month or two, and efforts to get a firm figure on the cost of the project and to secure materials is now underway.
That could be complete in a few weeks. Then the consortium would have to find funding for the actual work.
Fed targets may exclude area
The federal and provincial governments have set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for companies and local governments to finance last mile projects across British Columbia and Canada. However, it’s not clear this new utility would be eligible for full funding. Federal maps show that the bulk of the Slocan Valley’s population already receives internet service to the federal standard – something called the 50/10 rule, which indicates download and upload speeds.
Ferguson says the service they foresee will offer speeds up to 1 GB down and 1 GB up – far faster than the federal target of 50 MB down and 10 MB up.
“It’s a totally different vision, and doable based on the KiN model. We just have to find a way to move forward to make it happen.”
That brings the proponents to a waiting game, with the group lobbying to convince Ottawa they should qualify for the funding. They hope the support from CBBC and the provincial government, which Ferguson says is also supportive of the plan, will help push funders to back the project.
“Federal regulations are the sticking point,” he says.
Funding is only one of “many balls in the air,” Ferguson said, but he’s confident the challenges can be overcome.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and we’re determined to make this happen,” he said.