Fast fibre-optic internet arrives in many small towns before big cities

Dozens of small communities have blazing fast home internet service because they've decided to install it themselves rather than wait for the big telecom companies.

Municipalities seek to retain businesses by building their own networks

Canada's big telecom companies are starting to install the fibre-optic cables needed for ultrafast internet access at individual homes in some of the country's biggest cities. But a few smaller communities are already enjoying among the quickest connections in the country. (Tim Chong/Reuters)

Harriston, Ont. — population: 2,000 — has blazing fast home internet service at speeds many city dwellers would dream of.

In Olds, Alta. — population: 8,500 — home internet is 10 times quicker still, the fastest in the country.

Or take tiny Sandy, Ore. — population: 10,000 — a community outside Portland. For $60 US a month, you can stream movies in 4K ultra HD, browse the internet on multiple computers, and run a gaggle of apps across several smartphones, all at the same time, all without your connection breaking a sweat.

These small communities, and many more, have fast internet because they have high-throughput fibre-optic cables deployed directly into homes and businesses, enabling the quickest-yet speeds of up to 1,000 megabits, or one gigabit, per second. That's enough to stream numerous ultra HD Netflix movies at once, and many times the bandwidth of a typical home connection in urban Canada. 

But it's not Rogers, Bell, Telus, Shaw, AT&T or any of the big telecom companies that are providing the services.

Instead, a number of small Canadian towns and cities, like dozens in the U.S., are installing their own high-speed fibre-optic cables, or are benefiting as local companies do it — setting up homes and businesses with the fastest the internet has to offer.

"It's got almost infinite capacity," John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, an Ottawa-based consumer advocacy group, said of so-called "fibre to the home" internet service. "This is the way it's going to be for the next 100 years."

High-speed farm town

In Harriston, a farm-wrapped settlement about 70 kilometres northwest of the tech mecca of Waterloo, Ont., homes started getting fibre-optic cables installed in 2008. Family-owned and -run Wightman Telecom has since expanded fibre-to-the-home to a half-dozen other small communities in the area. Customers can get a 100 megabit per second (100 Mbps) plan for $76 a month, with unlimited usage — $9 less than Rogers charges for a comparable option in Toronto, or roughly the same price Bell charges for half the speed and a 250 gigabyte usage cap.

Only a few of Wightman Telecom's customers have a special arrangement to get full gigabit internet, but once there's enough demand, the company can fully turn on the taps at any time.

"We're really fortunate, because our owners are very forward-thinking, so they're way ahead of the curve in terms of wanting to provide the best technology available," Wightman Telecom marketing manager Hope Reidt said.

In Olds, Alta., some businesses were threatening to leave town because of the challenges posed by its once sluggish internet. The community came up with a plan to build its own fibre network, using government grants and loans connecting every home along the way.

Now, residents can sign up for gigabit home internet access for $120 a month (or lower speeds for less money). That's the same price telecom giant Shaw charges city dwellers in Calgary or Edmonton for a connection that's 88 per cent slower.

Not usually a priority

Then there's Stratford, Ont., perhaps best known for its Shakespeare festival, but now developing a reputation as an IT hub after it installed its own fibre-optic loop through the city and blanketed neighbourhoods with wifi access points. The University of Waterloo opened a campus there, and Royal Bank opened a $400-million data centre.

Stratford officials don't hold any grudges against the big telecom companies — quite the opposite, said Paul West, director of business development for the municipal broadband utility  — but they had the sense the big telecoms' priorities were elsewhere when it came to laying high-speed fibre-optic lines.

"We made some decisions on our own realizing it might be a while," West said. "We weren't trying to run the big providers out of town, but make our town competitive with bigger cities for digital infrastructure and quality of life."

And that's the reality of the business: While Bell announced plans this summer to spend $1.1 billion to wire up 1.1 million Toronto homes and businesses with fibre, and Telus committed to spending $1 billion to connect 90 per cent of Edmonton, the economics aren't as lucrative for places like Listowel, Ont., or Olds. (That said, Bell's Aliant unit has brought fibre to more than a million premises in Atlantic Canada, and also to Northern Ontario).

But as commerce continues to digitalize and globalize, small towns need high-speed internet more than ever to keep employers and residents from fleeing to hooked-up cities.

It's in part why hundreds of U.S. local governments saw years ago that they would be left out of the fibre-optic future and decided to develop their own networks. That includes places like Sandy, Ore., which has one of the best deals of them all: since late May, unlimited gigabit internet has been on offer for $60 US — even cheaper than the gigabit internet Google is rolling out in select U.S. cities.   

"It has been super reliable and super fast," resident Brie Kidwell said. "It is leaps and bounds over the old service that Sandy provided."

Left out

Still, these kinds of concerted municipal efforts aren't a solution for the most remote communities in Canada, many of which to this day are limping along with dial-up internet, while others get access through satellites or mobile wireless networks. The speeds aren't consistent, however, and will never match fibre-optics — even with the federal government's $305-million subsidy to ensure nearly every household in the country has at least minimal, five megabit-per-second broadband.

For now, though, a few outposts like Olds and Sandy get bragging rights to internet speeds that Toronto and Vancouver are only starting to wake up to — and paying much more for.


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