$2.74 million to connect 3 rural communities in northern Ontario to high-speed Internet

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Recently, the Government of Canada announced funding to bring high-speed Internet to three rural communities in northern Ontario. The communities are in the Hilton Beach and Sault Ste. Marie area.

"Access to high-speed Internet is not a luxury; it's essential. High-speed Internet service is a basic tool that all Canadians should have access to, regardless of where they live,” says The Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, in a release. “Our communities need this service to do business, upgrade their education and build stronger communities. Thanks to our Connect to Innovate program, more people will be able to participate fully in the digital economy."

The Government is providing $2.74 million to connect residents, businesses and students to high-speed Internet. Bell Canada is contributing an additional $912,000.

The new broadband infrastructure and improved services will allow residents to connect with each other, participate in online business, enroll in online education programs, and access all the resources an affordable, reliable Internet connection has to offer.

"For northern Ontario communities, digital investment through the Connect to Innovate program enhances opportunities for residents of all ages,” says David Lametti, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. “This important investment will support industries like mining and forestry in data collection and observation, students and youth in learning, and residents in day-to-day life with connected devices. It's all part of our government's plan to help create opportunity in all communities, including rural communities in the north."

The funding is provided as part of the country’s Connect to Innovate program, which aims to improve telecommunications services for everyone. This program is part of the Innovation and Skills Plan, which supports and promotes the creation of well paying jobs for middle-class Canadians.

"I am pleased that the federal government is investing in this very important project for this area,” says Terry Sheehan, Member of Parliament for Sault Ste. Marie. “The growth of high-speed Internet is a digital revolution that makes communication instantaneous and clear. Individuals, families, institutions, businesses, communities and governments all benefit."

This is a typical story coming from federal government about the CTI program.  On the surface it is good news.  Rural and remote communities are desperate for improvements to telecom infrastructure, so any investment to improve performance can be seen as a good thing.  However, below the surface, this funding, which is another tranche in this type of funding that has trickled out for decades, actually is hardening the systemic inequities in broadband Internet access for rural and remote residents and businesses.  Because while government is doling out millions of taxpayer dollars to fund this good-enough infrastructure, the large incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs), such as Bell and Rogers are spending billions of dollars to provide fibre-to-the-premises in Toronto. 

The goal of the federal and provincial governments should be to ensure ubiquitous equitable access to the Internet for everyone is provided.  This means everyone has access and everyone receives the same price and performance for the connection regardless of the where live or what is their income.  This should be our national goal because peoples’ equal opportunity to find a job, start a business, connect to their enterprise, reach a customer, receive healthcare, go to school and receive government services increasingly depends on their equal access to the Internet. The authoritative sources for this are the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the United Nations.  Evidence of the growing inequality of access is residents in downtown Toronto have access to 1 Gbps of symmetrical Internet service for $100 per month with an SLA while good sized businesses rural Canada can’t get this service at any price. 

The following price and performance attributes are the underlying technical fundamentals supporting broadband service that all Canadians must have.  By this we mean not all bandwidth is created equal, so making service definitions only about bandwidth or designing, building and funding new broadband infrastructure to merely meet the CRTC 50/10 standard, results in systemically entrenching the urban/rural digital divide.   Current evidence of this being correct is the $2.4 billion Rogers and Bell have invested in Toronto to support highly available, symmetrical and differentiated service offerings in their fttp deployments that scale up to 100 Gbps.   

Therefore, there are service standards which government funding programs should be aspiring to provide and government regulations should be structured to achieve, that go beyond bandwidth, because they effect whether a resident or business has equitable access to the Internet:

•                 Scalability – a scalable connection is one whose bandwidth may be increased dynamically to meet users’ needs without triggering undue delays and one-time costs to provision the bandwidth increase.  FTTP provides the maximum in scalability with residential service offerings up to 1 Gbps and business offerings up to 10 Gbps in Toronto today.  Copper telephone VDSL, VDSL2 and coaxial cable Docsis 2 and 3, cannot provide scalable bandwidths to this threshold due the physical limitations of copper and coaxial cable.  Fixed wireless can support up to 1 Gbps on a PtP basis for backhaul or access service to businesses, but fixed wireless is most commonly deployed on a PtMP basis at bandwidths below 50 Mbps to rural residents and small businesses by invoking traffic shaping and bandwidth sharing.  Scalability is a critical attribute to the taxpayer funded projects because we are making investments that need to serve the growing needs of users in across Canada for the next ten years or more and it is important to users to they be assured of equitable access to the Internet for years to come.

•                 Availability – network availability means an Internet connection that is available at a moment in time, anytime a user requires it, around the clock, 365 days per year.  FTTP provides the highest availability, particularly when provided on dedicated connection to the user.  Shared FTTH connections, such as Passive Optical Network (PONs) connections, have lower levels of availability because the connection is not dedicated to each user, it is shared between users.  Only PtP fixed wireless may also provide high availability because these connections are dedicated to the user.  PtMP FTTH, wireless, copper and coaxial connections are all shared between users and offer much lower availability due to the bandwidth contention between users’ as they simultaneously connect to the Internet.  For residents, this is most commonly obvious between 4 pm to 11 pm when residents are at home from work and school. High availability is very important for large businesses and data intensive businesses today, but it is becoming increasingly important as small businesses and later residents become more dependent on Internet connectivity to conduct business or live their lives.  

•                 Symmetry - means the upload and download speeds are the same.  Only fibre and fixed wireless are able to deliver symmetrical connections.  Symmetry is important because of the trend in apps development that need symmetry to function efficiently, including cloud, video conferencing, peer-to-peer, blockchain and IoT.  So, as more applications are developed that require symmetry and more of these apps are running simultaneously and concurrently on a connection, the more critical symmetry becomes to the user connecting to the Internet or the machines communicating with each other.  This requirement, already important for business, will soon become essential to residents’ access to healthcare, education, government and marketplaces.  Evidence of this growing requirement are Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) are offering residential subscribers in downtown Toronto symmetry today.

•                 Differentiation (QoS) – is the ability of an Internet connection to support simultaneous and concurrent sessions at the business or residence.  Quality of Service (QoS) enables TSPs to separate the connection into multiple channels to support multiple applications running simultaneously.  Only fibre and fixed wireless are able to provide differentiation. This is important so that each member of a household or business may use the application they need at a moment time, at the same time.  For example, a patient who is being remotely monitored and receiving a course of treatment from a doctor and specialist over the Internet while another member of the household is uploading her homework assignment to school.  Both sessions must have the bandwidth and prioritization to work properly.  The household of tomorrowwill see many more applications’ sessions running over the Internet with the advent of the smart home.

•                 Latency – is the time delay between two points.  While the latency of an Internet connection is affected by many factors, FTTP offers the lowest latency between the subscriber and the TSP’s core network.  As latency grows between two points this can affect the performance of the applications being used.  Latency is most obvious when a user is in a video conference session, such as one between a student and a teacher or business person and their customer.

•                 Jitter – jitter is the deviation of the periodicity of a signal.  The higher the deviation the more garbled the signal.  Jitter is affected by many things on an Internet connection, but FTTP offers the lowest amount of jitter between the subscriber and TSP’s core network. Low jitter is critical for sound clarity of VoIP and video applications.  The exponential growth in use of these jitter-sensitive applications is driving the Internet’s 50% compound annual growth in bandwidth consumption today.  

•                 Mean time to restore (MTTR) – mean time to restore is the measure of time it takes a TSP to restore a subscriber’s connection after an outage has occurred.  Having a commitment for MTTR is already required for large businesses and is becoming increasingly important to small businesses and residents in direct proportion to the dependency on Internet connectivity.  MTTR commitments are part of a Service Level Agreements (SLA) or a Service Level Objective (SLO) agreement.  Only dedicated FTTP and fixed wireless connections are able to support MTTR guaranteed commitments covered by SLAs, while other types of connections only support SLOs with no commitments because these are best effort services.

•                 Service Level Agreement (SLAs) – provide remedies to the subscriber should they be violated. SLAs are currently only available to large businesses and public-sector organizations.  As small businesses and residents’ dependency on Internet connectivity grows, they will need to move from best effort service in SLOs to committed service in SLAs. 

•                 Price – one of the largest barriers for rural residents and small businesses’ equitable access to the Internet is the price of the service.  Studies completed by this author and other studies by the CRTC, ISED, ITU and academic institutions show that rural residents and small businesses consistently pay more for Internet services and receive poorer services.  The lack of affordable Internet connectivity is largely due to fewer competitive TSPs choices for consumers and substandard or aged telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas. With no regulatory or competitive imperative to drive TSPs behaviour in rural areas, the price gap persists.  This is why TSPS who receive taxpayer funding must be required to provide carrier neutrality to third-party TSPs and open access to consumers to close this gap.  The evidence clearly shows the more competition, the better the services and the lower the prices for service. 

Therefore, we all need to better understand why and where and how we fund broadband infrastructure and the long-standing regime of funding the incumbent TSPs to make incremental improvements isn’t solving the problem and indeed is entrenching the problem by doing so.  

Campbell Patterson