Small Alberta town gets massive 1,000 Mbps broadband boost

Ultrafast internet speeds that most Canadian city dwellers can only dream of will soon be available to all 8,500 residents in a rural Alberta community for as little as $57 a month, thanks to a project by the town's non-profit economic development foundation.

Rural community of Olds builds its own fibre network and starts its own ISP

Olds is a rural community of 8,500 people about 80 kilometres north of Calgary. (Courtesy Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development)

Editor's Note: Interested in the issues raised in this 2013 feature? Replay's live discussion about the future of accessible internet and Net Neutrality from Jan. 22.

Ultrafast internet speeds that most Canadian city dwellers can only dream of will soon be available to all 8,500 residents in a rural Alberta community for as little as $57 a month, thanks to a project by the town's non-profit economic development foundation.

"We'll be the first 'gig town' in Canada," said Nathan Kusiek, director of marketing for O-Net, the community-owned internet service provider that runs the fibre optic network being built by the non-profit Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development in Olds, Alta., about 90 kilometres north of Calgary.

On Thursday, the board of O-Net gave approval for residents to get access to a full gigabit (or 1,000 megabits) per second of bandwidth for the same price that they currently pay for a guaranteed download speed of 100 megabits per second — $57 to $90 a month, depending on whether they have bundled their internet with TV and phone service.

"Essentially, we have the capacity. It will actually be a really good experiment to see what people use," Kusiek said.

O-Net had been thinking about making all the bandwidth fully available to residents for some time, he added.

"Because we're a community-owned project we get to balance out profitability versus what's best for the community."

One gigabit per second is the same speed offered by Google Fiber, as a pilot project, in Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kans., for $70 a month — a service that is envied by residents of many other U.S. cities, if the internet buzz is any indication.

With that kind of bandwidth, Google says you can stream at least five high-definition videos at the same time (allowing multiple people to watch and download different things in different rooms of a house), among other things.

A gigabit of bandwidth is considerably higher than the high-speed 175 to 250 megabits per second typically offered by fibre internet packages in big cities from internet providers such as Bell, Rogers or Shaw, typically for $115 to $226 per month. And it's blazingly fast compared to the average Canadian internet download speed of just 16.6 megabits per second for an average of about $54 a month, according to a recent report from internet metrics company Ookla.

Rural internet typically slow, expensive

The Olds project is a rarity. Most rural communities across Canada have to make do with internet service — often delivered by dial-up or satellite — that is slow or expensive, or both.

Not too long ago, Olds was in that boat. Some businesses were even threatening to leave town because of the challenges posed by the sluggish internet.

"We had engineering companies here who were sending memory chips by courier because there wasn't enough bandwidth to deal with their stuff," recalls Joe Gustafson, who spearheaded the project to bring a fibre network to Olds.

Gustafson is head of the technology committee for the Olds Institute, which was started a decade ago as a partnership among the Town of Olds, Olds College, the Olds and District Chamber of Commerce and the Olds Agricultural Society.

At that time, the town realized that it couldn't attract technology-based businesses and that bandwidth was a challenge even to ordinary businesses. It came up with a plan — it would install a fibre network throughout the town that would connect to the larger inter-community network being built by the government at that time — the Alberta Supernet.

The Olds Institute managed to secure a $2.5 million grant from the Alberta government to plan its network and build a community facility at the library, making use of the network. That facility included a video conference centre and 15 terminals for residents without their own access to computers.

The institute also managed to get a $6 million loan from the town of Olds to build the network itself.

Established providers refused to use town's network

There were some speed bumps along the way. The town had trouble finding skilled labour to install the fibre cables between people's property lines and their homes, putting the project behind schedule.

Building the network was a challenge, partly due to a shortage of skilled labour, but it is expected to reach every home and business in town within the next year. (Courtesy O-Net)

But eventually installation progressed and the Olds Institute began inviting large, commercial internet providers to offer their services via the new network. All of them refused to use a network they had not installed themselves, Gustafson said.

The community was undeterred. It came up with a new plan.

"We said, 'Well I guess if we're going to do this, we have to do our own services,'" Gustafson recalled.

The Olds Institute spent $3.5 million to buy the necessary electronic equipment to run internet and other services on the network and to build a central office to house it all. Last July, it launched O-Net.

The community-owned service offers not just internet, but also phone and IPTV services — TV signals carried on the network that includes dozens of SD and HD channels, and movies on demand that can be paused and later resumed.

All told, the project will probably have cost $13 million to $14 million when it's complete, Gustafson said.

"It's a very gutsy thing on behalf of council here in Olds to approve something like that," he added.

100 per cent coverage expected in 2014

About 60 per cent of homes and businesses in Olds, located almost midway between Calgary and Red Deer to the north, already have access to the town's fibre network, which is still under construction.

"Over the next year, we'll have the whole town covered," Kusiek said.

The Olds Institute managed to secure a $2.5 million grant from the Alberta government to plan its network and to build a community facility at the library making use of the network, including a video conference centre and 15 terminals for residents without their own access to computers. (Olds Municipal Library & Community Engagement Site) (Olds Municipal Library & Community Engagement Site)

At that point, while everyone should be able to subscribe to O-Net's services if they want to, they will also have the option of choosing lower-speed internet service with other telecommunications companies.

Under O-Net's new plans, residential users will share the gigabit of bandwidth among all the households on the same network access point. However, Kusiek estimates there would "never be more than four of five people on a connection that would be fighting over a gig."

Businesses in town can buy access to a dedicated, guaranteed gigabit per second of bandwidth for $5,000 a month. Gustafson said the network's launch last fall has helped stabilized local businesses.

"Now there's no talk about people leaving because of bandwidth challenges."

The engineering firm that used to send thumb drives by courier now sends "massive amounts of data just over the internet."

College transformation

The network is also transforming Olds College. The agricultural-based college, which emphasizes hands-on learning, had previously been limping along with 40 megabits of bandwidth for its 4,000 full- and part-time students.

Now that it has the bandwidth available, Olds College, an agricultural-based college, will be issuing iPads to every new student starting in September and putting a greater emphasis on mobile learning. (Olds College)

Jason Dewling, the vice-president for academic and research at the college, said the number of devices connected to the campus's WiFi network had doubled in each of the past three Septembers compared to the one before, and connectivity was spotty.

"You couldn't have a whole class on WiFi at the same time."

That made it impossible to push any kind of mobile learning — something that the college was starting to get into with initiatives such as an entrepreneurship course that required students to play an online game as part of its requirements.

Now, every space on campus allows each student to connect two devices at the same time. This September, every new student will receive an iPad and all textbooks will be web-based.

Dewling said the college is projecting a 10 per cent increase in the number of first year students this September, although it's hard to say how much of that is the result of the improved internet availability or the iPad program.

Olds is also hoping its network will attract new businesses in the future.

"We certainly have companies that are looking at us," Gustafson said. But he added that the fibre network only started operating last fall. "It's taking a while for people to understand, of course, what we have here."

Kusiek said the original goal of the project, to connect the entire town with a fibre network, was to attract new businesses and residents.

"I really think that now it is enough that [for] anyone looking to resettle, this is definitely a selling feature for Olds."