A public, wired network for Salt Spring Island

Project aims to strengthen emergency services and bring connectivity under community control

Oona McOuat

Photo by Barta IV, CC, cropped from original

The advocacy group “Let’s Connect Salt Spring” plans to bring community-owned fibre optics to Salt Spring Island within the next three years. In doing so they will join the ranks of communities all over Canada and the US that are taking their communications networks into their own hands for the public good.

This is a hard sell in the age of increasing wireless connectivity, but it may be the only way to ensure technological infrastructure remains in local hands.

How will a wired fibre-to-the-premises system benefit Salt Spring? Let’s first look at one issue – emergency services.

In December 2018, one of the worst windstorms in Salt Spring’s history downed a grid-tied Capitol Regional Emergency Services (CREST) tower at the Vesuvius Fire hall, leaving emergency services with major coverage gaps until they brought a generator to that site.

Fast forward to April 2019. Due to a botched public consultation process by CREST, Salt Spring residents learned at the eleventh hour that their Island Trust Committee would vote on placing an emergency services radio tower in the town of Ganges.

Many Salt Spring residents opposed the tower – not because they were against needed emergency service upgrades, but because they knew that once the radio tower was erected, federal government policy would encourage co-location at the site. By simply agreeing to pay the landowner an additional fee, commercial telecoms would be permitted to place their fourth and fifth generation cellular transmitters on the tower without public input. And when telecoms control the network, federal policy permits them to install 4G and 5G transmitters, coined “small cells,” on existing structures like telephone poles near homes without public knowledge or consent.” 5G is the fifth generation cellular network technology operating at higher frequencies than previous generations.

The opposition to 5G networks comes from credible research, like a 10-year, US$25 million study by the US Department of Health National Toxicology Program, which found radio frequency radiation associated with cancer in male rats. Peer-reviewed studies also find that unnatural electromagnetic radiation affects bees, butterflies, and other wildlife.

Funding is available to improve broadband and high-speed internet access. Wireless 5G networks also rely on fibre, and whoever accesses these funds – big telecom or local governments – will control it.

Wireless technology also comes with other strings attached: built-in obsolescence and high energy consumption means wireless networks have a huge carbon footprint.

But there is another way.

Let’s Connect Salt Spring’s approach to improving emergency services is to connect hospitals, fire and police, search and rescue, as well as all emergency transmission sites, with wired fibre. Because a renewable power source could be distributed through the fibre, emergency services communication, community radio, and phone service could all remain operational during disasters and emergencies.

CREST could use a fibre network to connect existing towers, offering better reliability and security, with less signal interference.

The lone disadvantage is that aerial fibre would be more vulnerable in a windstorm, yet most of the network could be routed underground.

Federal and provincial funding is available to improve broadband and high-speed internet access. Wireless 5G relies on fibre, and whoever accesses these funds and owns the fibre – big telecom or local governments – will control the network.

Big telecom’s aim is wireless technological infrastructure that is developed from the top down and for profit. Community-owned wired fibre networks aim to support and enhance the public good with technology that will not add to the burden of planetary problems we now face. The technology we choose will shape our future.

Contact: Cecile Petra, Let’s Connect Saltspring, cpetraot@shaw.ca

This article appears in our October 2019-November 2019 issue.


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