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Broadband in the Columbia Basin
Part One: The Columbia Basin Trust, the Columbia Basin Broadband Corporation (CBBC) and Castlegar
In October 2013 the Castlegar City Council passed a motion to initiate a process to explore options regarding the development of a high speed broadband service for the local business community. At the same time, it formed a Broadband Advisory Committee comprised of community volunteers to explore the possibilities associated with the provision of broadband services in the City and report back to Council. Similar activities are taking place in Nelson, Trail, and Rossland.
For the purposes of these articles, broadband is defined as the ability to upload and download data, video, and voice at equivalent high speeds, consistently and reliably across a fibre optic network.
The City of Trail is in the process of accepting applications from its business community for broadband service . Rossland plans to connect its municipal buildings and downtown businesses, and Nelson has surveyed its business community and is in the process of determining their “next steps”.
All of these communities, including Castlegar, are working with the Columbia Basin Broadband Corporation(CBBC), a wholly owned subsidiary of Columbia Basin Trust. Columbia Basin Trust recognizes that high speed internet plays a significant role in the Basin, and the ability of communities and rural areas to achieve their economic priorities and improve their quality of life. The CBT established the CBBC in 2011 as a wholly owned subsidiary. CBBC has fibre in the East and West Kootenay, and can provide a connection to these communities over its fibre “backbone”.
The communities can then create and connect their own community-based distribution networks to this backbone. The mission of the CBBC is to provide connectivity to a world class broadband network across the Columbia Basin.
In 2003/2004, the Province of British Columbia provided funding to create a fibre optic network throughout the School District 20 area to serve the needs of the school district and government services in both Trail and Castlegar.
Municipalities within the school district boundaries were invited to participate in the building of the network. Both Trail and Castlegar participated in that opportunity. Castlegar acquired fibre from the Industrial Park (south-end) to Brilliant (north-east) as well as out to the airport (east).
Even though the City of Castlegar was unable to move forward with the expansion of their fibre network in 2004, they did use it to create their own local network by connecting City Hall with Public Works, the Fire Hall and the Airport. Since then, Nelson has also built fibre, and Rossland plans to build fibre in 2014. .
In October of 2013 ,Castlegar City Council formed a Broadband Committee and tasked it to survey the business community of Castlegar to determine its needs regarding broadband services. The Committee also has been asked to reach out to inform the community about broadband and its potential impact on the economic, social, and cultural well being of the community. The survey to the businesses in Castlegar will be circulated in January 2014.
The decision to move forward, and to what degree, will be driven by the feedback from the survey regarding the broadband needs of businesses, including Internet access, the cost of connections for the City and the ability of the network to pay for itself through the delivery of these services to Castlegar businesses.
It is important to note that this network is an Open Access Network. It is defined as “open” because the network is created and owned independently from the services that are run on it. With this infrastructure in place, Internet service providers would be able to access the network and provide services over it.
Open Access Networks are being created in a variety of locations throughout North America and throughout the world. These networks can be viewed as essential parts of an infrastructure necessary for the continued and positive growth of communities such as Castlegar.
The importance of broadband to economic development is highlighted in the comments from Tammy Verigin-Burk, Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce who said “When people with an interest in investing in Castlegar contact the Chamber they ask two main questions. One is about the availability of healthcare and access to a Doctor. The second is about the level and quality of telecommunications available to businesses.”
Access to high speed broadband is not about the future. It is about now. Rural communities like Castlegar have seen a loss in businesses, schools, families with children, healthcare and other government services over the past twenty years. Broadband networks can help reverse that trend. It won’t bring back all that has been lost, but it can provide an opportunity to help sustain a positive future for Castlegar both in terms of a way and a quality of life.
Part Two: Why Broadband?
Proponents of broadband networks and services believe that they can have a positive impact on economic development, education, health and social services, and eventually, on the way people interact with their government as well as voting.
The primary mandate of the Castlegar Broadband Committee at this time is to explore how broadband can benefit the business community. The Committee is also aware of the potential benefit of broadband to the community in general, including community and service groups, seniors, and other organizations and institutions within the community. The Committee see’s those as topics for possible future discussion.
Broadband initiatives are being undertaken in a variety of places around the world. It is a tool and a set of services that is viewed as important to a nation’s economic viability and sustainability. It is a way people can have equity of access and equity of opportunity to information and resources within their society.
In BC there is a clear distinction between the telecommunication speeds and services available to rural and urban communities. Those who live in urban areas have access to a more affordable higher telecommunication speeds and a wider array of services than do their rural cousins. Some parts of the Kootenay region are still on dial up access to the Internet at low speed levels and sometimes inconsistent and unreliable services.
This is not the fault of telecommunications companies. They operate on a profit model that demands a profit commensurate with their investment. There are not enough people in the Kootenay region to generate or warrant that type of investment in high speed/high capacity technologies at affordable pricing. This means that local communities need to find innovative ways to bring high speed broadband to their communities.
What will broadband mean to me? It is more than accessing e-mail and web-browsing. It is about providing communities with a capacity and an opportunity to improve upon services and resources, especially those that have been downsized or eliminated due to changes in the economy and the downsizing or elimination of government programs and services in the areas like education and health.
Many people who live here in the Kootenay region believe that they live in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. There are a variety of lifestyle options that cater to many individual interests and passions including fishing, hiking, camping, skiing, snowboarding, golf, photography, etc. Quality broadband services, like the ones being considered by the City, would enable more economic development within the region.
But the benefits of this network are more than just financial. Other benefits include the opportunity to expand educational access to programs as well as training. When programs can’t be offered at the secondary level because of low enrolments, for example, it may be possible to have students connect to other schools or the College and be online participants in the program via high quality and dependable teleconferencing services.
These networks can also enhance the delivery of and access to government services and reduce the amount of travel that people must presently endure. Travel is an accepted part of the lifestyle in the region, but the need for such travel could be reduced through the utilization of broadband services. There is some speculation that broadband connections will become the future method by which people vote in their elections as Governments (Federal, Provincial and Municipal) improve access through the employment of E-Government concepts.
Broadband access can also provide municipal governments and local institutions with online services that will allow Boards and Councils to better engage taxpayers and citizens in the democratic process through the use of online surveys and feedback mechanisms on key issues. Although the present focus in Castlegar is towards connecting the business community to broadband services, there may come a time when other applications may be considered.
Part Three: Open Access Networks and the “Common Good”
Fibre Optic Open Access Networks create a powerful infrastructure that in the hands of creative people within businesses, organizations and institutions will bring great benefit to their communities. These networks can provide a way by which these businesses, institutions and organizations can reinvent themselves while staying current, relevant and sustainable. It is the beginning of a new era and it would be fair to suggest that this network will grow to be used in ways that have yet to be imagined.
The past two decades have seen a lot of changes as well as a reduction in services and programs in Castlegar as well as other areas in the Kootenays. The colourful history of this region contains many stories about communities that were built around the discovery of natural resources. When those resources were depleted, the population dwindled and the cities, towns or communities either disappeared or were reduced to a shadow of what they once were. Ghost towns, abandoned mines, and silent sawmills are silent tributes to a reality that no longer exists.
The global economy is no longer driven by access to and the development of raw resources. Natural resources are still important to the economy of Canada, but the number one driver of the new economy in the knowledge society is information. This economic reality coupled with information/communication technologies as well as robotics and artificial intelligence have changed or impacted the Canadian lifestyle, economy, pattern of work and the skills and attitudes needed to function in a post-industrial or information-age society.
The pattern is similar throughout rural populations. Declining enrolments and changes to funding formulas have caused the closure of schools and the reduction of educational programs and services. Some areas are having a tough time attracting doctors and maintaining hospital services. Rural citizens find that they have to spend more time and money as well as travel great distances to access the services they need- services that at one time were more accessible to where they lived.
Certainly the development of affordable high speed services within rural regions could do much to address the issues in a number of areas. But the infrastructure alone won’t bring about the necessary changes because that requires new thinking and new practice on the part of those in governance and leadership at all levels as well as by those providing these services to their communities. Unfortunately developing new thinking and new practice is often a greater stumbling block than anything else.
Creating positive change within communities also requires an informed citizenry that is prepared to work cooperatively across the region for the common good. That unfortunately has not always been part of the Kootenay culture, a culture built around competition that pits one community against another as they compete for a service, a building, or access to a special fund.
This practice usually results in one community winning and one or more losing. This type of approach does not help the whole region move forward and any government service or bureaucracy that implements decision making processes or allocates resources that sustain this practice should be questioned.
For these organizations and institutions to succeed and for the people who access the services of these organizations and institutions to get the best product available to them, there needs to be some effort to plan and fund initiatives on a regional and not an individual community basis. The needs of the institution or organization cannot supersede the needs of the people the system was designed to serve.
Part Four: What Might Be
For an Open Access Broadband network to be successful it needs to have a regional focus and should be designed around the concepts of equity of opportunity and equity of access. And some services that could or should be augmented by the network, like health and education, must be guided by the same principles.
In health, for example ,the argument should not be who has the inside political track to influence where the hospital is located or not located, but rather how the people of the region can best benefit from a coordinated set of regional services that involve doctors, nurses, public health hospitals and tele-health services.
Tele-health services are those services delivered or augmented by access to broadband. “In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service (NHS) has provided tens of thousands of its patients with remote tele-medical health treatment and monitoring. In Scotland alone this has accounted for a savings of 70,000 bed-days. Specialist tele-health programs such as the Scottish tele-stroke network and the ENT tele-endoscopy in the north of Scotland have reduced waiting lists, travelling needs between remote areas and specialist clinics for both patients and consultants and have achieved big savings in hospital stay costs.” (Australia’s project for universal broadband access: From policy to social potential, by Marcos Pereira Dias, first Monday, Volume 17, Number 9-3 September 2012)
There are many examples on the Internet of places throughout the world where health care providers are improving access and types of services to people through the use of broadband technologies and the creation of tele-health centers. One such example is on oil rigs.
A nurse on an oil rig, through broadband services, can provide a specialist located at a hospital with information on the health of a patient who has been injured or become ill. It may mean doing ultra sound, taking x rays, blood pressure and/or blood work and sending this information to a specialist and then arranging for the specialist to interact via teleconferencing with the patient and to review the data. At this point, the specialist is able to make an informed decision whether the patient needs to be flown off the rig to a hospital or not.
Imagine the benefit to people in Castlegar if they had access to these kinds of services. People would not have to spend time, money and windshield time, sometimes during the worst weather of the year, for an often time critical decision about their health. Nor would people have to endure the time and expense of travelling to Kelowna or Vancouver with the all too familiar ten minute visit with a specialist only to be told “I’ll see you again in six months.”
That is a waste of time and resources on everyone’s part. It is not efficient and it is not effective. It may be possible in the future to utilize the broadband services that will be available through the Open Access Network to expand and augment health services to the citizens of Castlegar. Doing that requires new practice and new thinking not only on the part of health care providers but also by those who need and want to utilize these services. It also requires cooperation and planning at all levels of government. That truly would constitute the “common good.”