To attract new businesses and homebuyers — and improve internet speeds for current residents — the City of Brooks has begun construction on a next-generation fibre optic network, utilizing an open-access, co-ownership model.
Slow speeds slow down growth
Information from the Canadian Internet Registration Association (CIRA) shows that approximately 72% of Brooks’ residents are currently only able to achieve download speeds of under 20 Megabits per second (Mbps), far less than the minimum download speed of 50 Mbps recommended by the CRTC for basic internet needs in Canada.
These low speeds can be deal-breakers for businesses looking to set up operations in the region. “Our economic development team was approached by a business with high bandwidth requirements,” says Alan Martens, CAO for the City of Brooks. “Once they heard about our internet capabilities, those conversations were over.”
Low speeds can also deter potential homebuyers who are looking to escape the city and work remotely. “Covid has taught people that they can work from anywhere. They don’t need to live in big cities and pay large amounts for rent or housing. We want to bring these people to our community,” says Martens. But if remote workers can’t get the connectivity they need, they’re unlikely to relocate to low-cost areas like Brooks.
It is therefore unsurprising that Brook’s economic development team, following a study conducted during the pandemic, concluded that developing a high-speed broadband network in the municipality would better position it for future economic growth.
Barriers to high speed broadband in rural communities
Large telecom companies are often unwilling to upgrade their services in rural municipalities because the small populations promise equally small profits. “We have large incumbents — Telus and Shaw — but of course, they’re profit driven, so they have to work in large communities, where they can generate profits,” says Martens. “We’re down on their [priority] list.”
Unable to rely on internet incumbents, but still in need of faster services, the City began working with nearby municipalities to make use of a dark fibre ring in southeast Alberta. (“Dark fibre” refers to unused optical fibre that is already in the ground). This ring would connect Brooks to Calgary’s internet transit through Medicine Hat and Lethbridge.
However, one of Brook’s incumbents, Shaw, had already installed a fibre optic cable between Brooks and Calgary. Network managers in the City soon found that “lighting” the dark fibre ring would be more expensive than leasing Shaw’s cable, and decided on the cheaper option.
Shaw’s cable functions as BrooksNET’s “backbone.” It transfers data between Calgary and an endpoint located in the Brooks area, but not into community members’ homes and businesses. To accomplish the latter task, the City needed to construct both a “feeder” network and a “distribution” network.
The feeder network would move data from the backbone network’s endpoint to the different parts of the city. The distribution network would then move data from the feeder network into customers’ properties.
Unfortunately, estimates to build these networks were millions of additional dollars.
Cost was becoming a major impediment to the fibre build. While the City had received some funding from the Canada Community Building Fund, it was not eligible to receive funding from the Universal Broadband Fund (UBF), which was created to support high speed internet builds in remote and rural communities across Canada.
The reason for its ineligibility was the fact that some residents (though the minority) were able to achieve internet speeds of 50 Mbps download / 10 Mbps upload.
Limited by its budgetary constraints, the City sent out a request for proposals.
Co-owned, open-access fibre
The City eventually accepted a proposal for a fibre build based on a co-ownership model. The new network consortium includes an engineering firm, an initial Internet Service Provider (ISP), and, most importantly, a funding partner, Crown Capital. “The price of the project is around $20 million, and without the funding partner, it would have never moved forward,” says Martens.
The feeder network will be paid for and owned by the City, and will cost approximately $5.4 million. The more expensive distribution network will be paid for and owned by Crown Capital, and will cost approximately $15 million.
Scheduled to be completed next year, BrooksNET will be constructed entirely of fibre optic cable, and will be capable of providing internet speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps) to users.
It will also be an open-access network. Similar to how any transport company can access the city’s road system to deliver goods to local businesses, any ISP will be able to use BrooksNET to provide customers with internet services.
“Fibre gives us more opportunities down the road than wireless, and open access attracts more competition,” says Martens. “Telus and Shaw haven’t approached us yet, but we’d sure welcome them.”
The roadways of tomorrow
According to Martens, BrooksNET isn’t a luxury service for local residents. While a high-speed broadband network might seem expensive and excessive in the present, he believes this infrastructure will be necessary for the city to compete in tomorrow’s economy.
“Why would you need roads at the turn of the century, when people were using horses and buggies to get around? Past municipal governments probably struggled to make these types of future-oriented infrastructure decisions too,” says Martens. “Everyone should have access to clean and adequate drinking water. Everyone should have access to adequate health care. These are essential services.”
“We shouldn’t have second class citizens in Canada, which means everyone should have access to quality internet as well.”