Why super-fast internet may come from a company you've never heard of

Bell and Telus pledged earlier this summer to wire up Toronto, Edmonton and other cities for ultra-fast internet, but it was old news for some residents who are clients of a handful of non-traditional companies.

Highest speeds for Canadian residential customers are with small ISPs in tall buildings

Spending on communications services keeps going up but are you, getting the best deal? (Rasulov/Shutterstock)

Coming soon to a city near you: the next generation of super-speed internet access.

Canada's cities, lagging behind many global metropolises — and even some tinier towns both here and abroad — are finally getting wired up for some of the fastest home internet speeds on the market — up to 1,000 megabits per second, also known as one gigabit. 

That's about 20 times nimbler than the average current high-speed service in Canada, and is rapid enough to download an HD movie in about a minute.

Bell launched its Gigabit Fibe service this week, offering near-gigabit speeds in places like Quebec City as well as parts of Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Sherbrooke, and some other communities in Ontario and Quebec. It plans to make the service available in the Atlantic provinces and other locations in Ontario and Quebec this fall.

Laying fibre-optic cable under and above city streets and right to customers' doors is the next step in raising home internet speeds. In Canada, the average home bandwidth currently pales in comparison with countries like South Korea, Japan and even Lithuania. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty)

Vidéotron announced it will have gigabit internet access for many Quebec customers as of next year. Telus is also building a "gigabit-enabled" network in Edmonton, though the actual speeds offered will be slower.

But to thousands of Canadian internet users, an ultra-fast connection is old news — and the companies supplying it are far from the traditional heavyweights.

Take Urbanfibre, a Vancouver-area startup that has been enrolling customers since February in B.C.'s Lower Mainland, offering gigabit internet for $69 a month. CEO John Farlinger said the company has now wired about 35 multi-unit residential buildings, and plans to be in another 50 by the end of the year.

"You've got eight to 12 connected devices in the home now: tablets, computers, smartphones, TVs, et cetera. And you've now got 4K TVs, which in most cases require 25 megabits per second themselves," Farlinger said. "But we don't believe that the incumbents" — meaning giants like Shaw, Telus and Bell — "have met demand with supply."

Indeed, the fastest plan Telus advertises for the Vancouver area is 100 megabits per second (Mbps) for $93 a month. Shaw once offered gigabit speeds to clients in a few pockets of the city for $115 a month, but they're no longer mentioned on its website; its current fastest is 120 Mbps for $123 a month.

Another Vancouver startup, OneGigabit, drew attention with its launch two years ago, promising gigabit internet hookups for between $45 and $65 a month.

Internet MacGyvers

Farther east, several small companies have been offering blazing fast internet for prices well below the advertised rates of the incumbents.

Smaller internet service providers have beat out the big telecoms in some cases by installing their own fibre-optic cables and offering blazing fast speeds to apartment dwellers. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

Toronto-based Beanfield Metroconnect's options top out at 500 Mbps for $100 a month. The company is in about 50 residential buildings, CEO Dan Armstrong said.

In its early years, it operated less like a telecommunications company and more like a band of internet MacGyvers.

"We didn't really understand the permit process, so we would just run fibre wherever we could: through fences, hedges, old steam tunnels. We just got ladders and taped it to anywhere," Armstrong recalled.

Now Beanfield has 100 employees and landed the contract to provide internet access for this summer's Pan Am Games in Toronto.

Rival FibreStream also markets 500 Mbps service, for $125 a month, in highrises and condos in Toronto and Ottawa.

And in Olds, Alta., a community initiative has brought gigabit internet to homes for $120 a month.

Lack of thinking big

It all raises the question: How have these smaller companies beaten out the behemoths like Bell, Rogers and Telus to install super-fast internet in people's homes?

Or rather, why didn't Bell, Rogers, Telus and the other big players get to it first?

Part of the problem, said Ritch Dusome, CEO of the federally funded not-for-profit Centre of Excellence in Next Generation Networks, is a collective, national lack of thinking big.

Fibre optic cables carry data in the form of pulses of light passed along glass strands, instead of shooting electrical signals along a copper wire. (CBC)

"I don't think we put the goalposts high enough," he said of Canada's official speed target for home internet service.

"Right now they're saying 85 per cent of Canada will have five megabits ... That's kind of the base. My view is we should really have something much more significant."

Arguably, without an ambitious federal standard, the highly regulated large incumbents have had less incentive to up their offerings.

Meanwhile, small companies, which don't have huge bases of customers to satisfy across vast geographic stretches, and don't face strict policing by the CRTC, the national regulator, can rustle up clients building by building and expand their own fibre-optic networks bit by bit.  

"We're smaller. We don't have any legacy infrastructure to worry about. We're not encumbered by some of the urban and rural markets that they are," Beanfield's Armstrong said.

"We're also building in an area of downtown Toronto where there's enough density to offer high-speed service at a competitive price."

It's made for a two-track Canada when it comes to internet access: while condo owners are getting blazing speeds up to a gigabit, Dusome said his own home connection in outer Ottawa maxes out at a sluggish five megabits. And that's already several times faster than many rural Canadians.

"We're behind where we need to be," he said. "We should really be striving more for much higher speeds, and basically be a leader."