Broadband For All: Closing the Digital Divide in BC Without Big Telecom

BC's remote and coastal communities have a golden opportunity to keep their internet service – and profits – in local hands

Claire Gilmore

Fibre optic | Photo by Virginia Tech (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Many communities across North America are eschewing much-hyped 5G wireless networks to build and operate their own “fiber-to-the-premises,” or wired, networks. BC’s remote and coastal communities now have a golden window of opportunity to follow suit.

On March 8, the BC government announced an investment of $50 million to expand high-speed internet service for people living in approximately 200 rural and Indigenous communities. The money, administered through the Northern Development Initiative Trust, is aimed at closing the “digital divide” – the discrepancy between Canadians who have access to information and communication technologies, and those who don’t. Then on March 19, the federal government tabled their budget, committing another $750 million to “extend ‘backbone’ infrastructure to underserved communities,” and fund “last-mile” connections to homes and businesses.

In other words, the digital divide is closing now, and Canadian communities have important decisions to make about about how they want to do it.

The “last mile” and why it matters

Over the next few years, the Connected Coast project plans to bring high-speed internet to 155 coastal BC communities, but there’s a hitch: the project’s sub-sea fiber-optic cable will only reach the shore of each community involved. From there, communities must decide if they will connect to the cable, and if so, how they will finance and implement the “last mile” of their new information highway.

They must decide whether they want to create a their own Internet utility or become customers of large Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and choose what kind of last-mile connection will serve them best in the long run: wired or wireless.

“Wireless networks and services, compared to wired access, are inherently more complex, more costly, more unstable (subject to frequent revision and ‘upgrades’), and more constrained in what they can deliver.”

According to the First Nations Technology Council, communities that form their own ISPs can control pricing policies, priorities, and how their network is deployed – and avoid the tricky issues with right-of-way and Rights and Title that can arise when a telecom agreement is signed with a large ISP. Municipalities and First Nations can choose to deploy, maintain, and manage the service themselves, or to only build the network infrastructure, and let ISPs sell services over it – netting a revenue stream in the process.

Wired versus wireless

A 2018 report from the National Institute for Science, Law & Public Policy in Washington, DC, succinctly explains the popularity of wireless infrastructure: “Corporations will invariably seek the cheapest, quickest, and most profitable path, which has led to the current emphasis on wireless.”

The same report explains the benefits of wired networks over wireless networks: “First and foremost, the public needs publicly-owned and controlled wired infrastructure that is inherently more future-proof, more reliable, more sustainable, more energy efficient, safer, and more essential to many other services. Wireless networks and services, compared to wired access, are inherently more complex, more costly, more unstable (subject to frequent revision and “upgrades”), and more constrained in what they can deliver.”

In short, community-owned fiber-to-the-premises generates profit for the community, and keeps the Internet in local hands.

Wired is also safer. In March 2018, The Nation reported on a meta-analysis of studies to date: “90% of the 200 existing studies included in the National Institute of Health’s PubMed database on the oxidative effects of wireless radiation – its tendency to cause cells to shed electrons, which can lead to cancer and other diseases – have found a significant impact.” The technology also has shown effects on birds and insects.

5G

While communities with their own wired networks can control future upgrades, customers of large ISPs will likely find their networks rolled over to 5G in the coming years, according to BC-based independent communications analyst Oona McOuat.

The security risks associated with Huawei’s 5th Generation (5G) millimetre wave technology have exploded in the media lately, increasing scrutiny of the whole 5G project – including long-term health effects. As Eric Reguly, European Bureau Chief for the Globe and Mail, emphasized in a March 9 article, there has not been a single study on the health effects of 5G, even as the worldwide roll-out begins. According to the article, the US telecom industry has admitted they are “kind of flying blind there so far as health and safety are concerned.”


Read More: 5G Corporate Grail by Joyce Nelson


Wireless infrastructure consumes at least 10 times as much energy as wired technologies – and the Guardian reported in July 2018 that the energy used in our digital consumption is already set to have a bigger impact on global warming than the entire aviation industry. The 5G rollout (and its purported end game, the “Internet of Things”) would likely see the energy demand of internet communication increase exponentially.

Community control

Most of us have never heard of “municipal broadband,” but over 800 communities in the US are currently served by some form of municipally or cooperatively owned network. According to McOuat, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco are also now looking at using a similar model, in no small part to preserve “net neutrality” – the principle that ISPs should enable access to all web-based content and applications regardless of the source.

In Canada, municipal broadband exists in a handful of cities including Olds, Alberta, Coquitlam, BC, and Thunder Bay, Ontario. More recently, the Gwaii Tel Society began installing an extensive fibre optic network to reach all households on Haida Gwaii – a major improvement over the spotty wireless coverage that had been beamed over the Hecate Strait by microwave radio link.

McOuat recently launched a website – Connected Communities ~ Wired fiber for Sustainable Last-Mile Solutions – intended as a toolkit for communities to walk themselves through the process of getting their own network together, starting with how to access funding. As she says, “we want to create strong, resilient communities, especially in the face of global warming. It’s not an either/or thing. It’s going to take a little bit of initiative but it’s going to create lasting benefits for our communities for generations to come.”


Claire Gilmore is the Watershed Sentinel’s managing (and occasionally contributing) editor. She lives in Comox, BC

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