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LivingA homegrown approach to rural high-speed Internet

A homegrown approach to rural high-speed Internet

Robin Sukhu

If you live in rural Ontario, you know all about dreaming about high-speed internet.  I live in Mississippi Mills and like most rural areas, we are stuck with either satellite service or over the air wireless with data caps, pitiful download speeds – and it is expensive.  The ultimate dream would be to have fibre directly to your house.  In our neighbouring township of Beckwith, that dream is being realized now.

Fibre to the home in rural areas! Surely that is not possible. A local entrepreneur, Ben LaHaise, is providing exactly that – fibre to the home and at prices competitive with urban areas.

Some background:  The large telcos are focusing their efforts and money on the densely populated urban areas. Rural areas where there is one home every kilometer or more do not generate high profits.  Rural residents will have to wait, possibly 10 years, for the telcos to start looking at us, if they ever do.  (I have been waiting for 15 years and counting.)

Ben, who lives in Lanark county, was fed up with waiting for high-speed internet.  The telcos were not coming, the federal government kept making promises, but nothing was happening. He decided to fix this problem himself.  Ben started by installing his own fiber to his home using a homegrown network.  Today he is supplying homes in a neighbouring municipality with fibre to the home and with speeds of up to 1 Gig!

His company, Community Fibre Company (CFC), has done no advertising yet via word of mouth customers have and continue to sign up.  The company is working all out to satisfy the demand.

Recently I was given a tour of part of CFC’s operation.  I had a chance to see what is called a “Point of Presence” (PoP).  This is the point where the internet traffic is taken from a large capacity fibre cable and split up into smaller “pipes” feeding each home. I did not know what to expect, I was given an address in the middle of a field.  This is what I saw when I arrived:

It is an insulated shipping container with electrical power, air conditioning, fibre optic cables sitting in a field.

Inside are racks of equipment like this:

Ben explained that he was in the process of providing service to a new neighbourhood and this equipment is where everything comes together.  There are servers and other equipment that I could not really understand.  There were two banks of batteries for battery back-up in case of power failure. There was testing equipment that can send light down the fibre and can locate problems with the fibre by detecting the small reflections where individual houses are connected.

I kinda understood how he gets the signal to the individual homes but how does CFC get onto the massive high-speed fibres that link up the world?  Apparently, there is a thing called a “Carrier Hotel” which is a building that is strategically located in a major city where all the major internet carriers come together.  It is like a grand central station. CFC is connected to a carrier hotel in Toronto.  With this setup, CFC is not beholden to anyone internet carrier and can easily switch carriers because of being connected to the grand central station.

Getting the fibre from the PoP to subscribers is another set of complications.  Before CFC can attach a fibre cable to a telephone or hydro pole, the pole must be assessed for its ability to carry an additional cable.  The attachment to the pole must be approved by a professional engineer – this is one of the biggest costs.  Installation on the pole requires trained staff – CFC has paid for the training of its local homegrown staff.   To speed up installation of fibre over long rural distances, CFC purchased two bucket trucks (the type of truck that has an operator in a bucket that can reach the pole).

Our neighbouring municipality is benefiting from CFC’s expertise and investment.  I want to have this benefit in Mississippi Mills partly because I would love to have the service and more importantly, it enables people in Mississippi Mills to compete with anyone in the world.  I believe that the group MM2020 identified that a lot of people in Mississippi Mills operate some or most of their business on-line.

What is the CFC model, how do they overcome the high costs of construction in rural areas?  CFC has a construction cost of about $1700 per home – this cost can be spread over three years and then it is removed.   The upside of this is that having high speed internet increases the value of your home by more than $1700.

Separate from the construction cost is the monthly cost for the service. The monthly cost is competitive with the urban prices and there are no data caps on the service.

How can we get CFC to build in Mississippi Mills as soon as possible?  I think the answer revolves around the construction costs.   If 500 homes in Mississippi Mills signed up, the construction costs would be 500 * $1700 = $850,000.  I suspect that is too large a capital outlay for a small company like CFC.

In addition, not everyone in Mississippi Mills can come up with $1700 even if it does increase the value of their home by $4,000.  I wonder if our municipal government can help in the following way:  if interested homeowners elected to pay the $1700 over 3 years by having the payments added to their tax bill, I think banks would be willing to lend CFC the construction money with the payments from the tax bill as collateral.  This would mean that financing would no longer be an obstacle.

I recall paying for the tiling cost of our farmland this way, by an addition to my tax bill.  Could we not use that mechanism again?  I am writing this hoping that our councillors will propose this as an option if it is legal and viable.

Or if not that, is there some other way the municipality can help rural residents amortize the costs of getting high-speed and reliable Internet access?

If this idea works, it will be a win for everyone: rural residents will get high-speed fibre now, Mississippi Mills will be more competitive, property values will be increased, it will cost the municipality nothing and our local Lanark County high tech workers will be expanding their fibre network.  We could be like the town of Olds, Alberta!




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