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Monday, October 20, 2008

Old Fashioned Telephone Lines and the SuperNet Last Mile Solution

There is an interesting article by Fil Fraser on Alberta’s fibre-optic SuperNet in the October issue of Alberta Venture magazine. It is entitled “Only So Super” and it is well worth a read. Fil makes the point that the high-speed Internet access has not made its way into rural Alberta homes and businesses yet. That ubiquity of service was the promise of SuperNet but it has not happened – yet!

This is because the “last mile” connection from the public institutional users like hospitals, schools and libraries does not extend to the private citizen user. That so-called “last mile” of connectivity out to the rest of us in our homes, community groups and businesses has not yet been effectively resolved.

There are Internet Service Providers (ISPs) out there trying to resolve the last mile in rural Alberta using wireless and satellite services but with varying degrees of success. Wireless is a capital intensive and difficult public policy process to put up towers all over the place, and it has technical challenges too. The latency in signals from satellite does not serve video conferencing requirements effectively and video conferencing is going to be a major rural Alberta application of the power of the SuperNet. Some are proposing fibre to the home but that is very expensive and hardly necessary for most user’s needs.

Fraser notes “In less than a decade, technology has moved communications from dial-up services to coaxial cable to wireless networks to the nearly limitless, speed-of-light, carrying capacity of fibre-optic cable.” With the SuperNet, that “speed-of-light” fibre-optic is so close but yet so far from serving rural Alberta citizens and businesses. But until the last mile is really resolved, it is still out of reach.

There is an interesting, exciting and elegant alternative to resolving the last mile for the vast majority of rural Albertans. That solution is good old-fashioned copper telephone wire. That well known and familiar technology is already in every home and business in Alberta that has a land-line telephone. The technology has developed now so you can use it connect small town Albertans to the SuperNet using the reliable, robust, cheap, and ubiquitous copper wire telephone lines - with no new capital costs. Everything old is new again!

But there is a catch. The SuperNet was built by Bell and they are responsible to resolve the last mile issue. Bell’s position is wireless and satellite are enough to resolve the last mile issue, and they may be legally correct. However, As Fil Fraser noted, the accelerating use of video and video conferencing as the new normal expectation for Internet use, means theses “solutions” are not good enough anymore.

Copper wire is a winning solution to deal with the increasing demands of modern Internet users, especially for the new trends towards video and high-definition video conferencing. Here is the catch. All that copper wire in Alberta is owned by Telus and they claim this elegant and obvious last mile solution for rural Albertans is unworkable.

In Fraser’s article Telus likens the use of copper wire for SuperNet access would be like asking them to “build another company a black-and-white TV network instead of the new HDTV network we are halfway through building.” What? I am no techie but I understand Telus uses its copper wire for its own Hi-Def TV service as well as for their DSL Internet service. What is not workable about that?

Telus is suggesting their efforts to place their fibre-optic cable “across much of the province” would require them “…to actually pull out some of that hardware and go back to copper.” Why? I understand they don’t pullout copper wire. They just lay the fibre right beside it. But I am not techie! It would be illogical to pull out copper wire if it was able to provide high speed reliable and robust Internet service capable of video and high definition video conferencing for rural Albertans.

If Telus is laying optic fibre beside copper wire why are they even trying to duplicate the SuperNet? That fibre-optic system was already paid for by Alberta taxpayers? Why wouldn’t Telus access SuperNet themselves and provide all their new services to customers on that system? Saving the capital costs of installing a parallel fibre-optic service seems like a no-brainer and the funds could be used in other ways to improve shareholder value. Am I missing something here?

There is some good news. While the Internet and wireless is unregulated and priced by so-called competitive market forces, good old fashioned copper telephone wire access is still regulated...by the CRTC. So the Internet Centre, the very first commercial Internet Service Provider in Alberta, has taken the matter in hand and has applied to the CRTC for a regulatory ruling. They have filed an application with the CRTC for Telus to provide ISPs the access necessary to their copper wire to provide high-speed Internet service to rural Albertans.

If the Internet Centre is successful then the 180 Alberta communities who currently have no Internet service can get it and get SuperNet access to boot. If you have a landline telephone in a community in Alberta, you will be able to get high-speed Internet service that is capable of handling video and high- definition video conferencing at least the same cost as wireless if not less. Don't you just love competition?

I am no techie, but I have talked to knowledgeable telecom consultants about this unloaded copper wire approach and everyone agrees that it is a great solution. I am advised that SaskTel is already using its copper wire for high-speed Internet access in small communities in Saskatchewan. One consultant told me “Just because copper wire is buried, does not mean it is dead.”

The CRTC advises that there is a 90% chance they will have their decision out before Christmas. Cost effective, reliable and robust high-speed high capacity Internet on copper wire they already have in their homes and businesses would make a nice Christmas present for rural Albertans. Keep your fingers crossed rural Alberta.