Sunday, November 02, 2008

Rural Alberta Broadband Access - More Than Connectivity. It's About Equality and Equity

Now the Canadian election is over and the US election is due to be decided next week, I am going to be writing a lot more about Net Neutrality and rural broadband access.

My net neutrality take is going to be about the need for free speech protections from private sector regulation disguised as proprietary rights of providers of broadband services. The rural broadband access to the Alberta SuperNet, the so-called First/Last Mile connection, is a major and transformative public policy issue for government.

This is also an issue in the Presidential election, at least for the tech-community. It is a differentiating issue that shows the spread of the consciousness and world views of McCain and Obama. McCain is so yesterday. He does not use a computer and has not sent an email and his stance on broadband shows his ignorance of what is happening in the so-called competitive wireless world today. No wonder the entire American technology community supports Obama.

I have a concern over the vacuum in the public policy leadership role to realize the potential positive impact of the Alberta SuperNet fibre optic system that is all over the province but still out of reach of citizens.

Rural broadband access is a key public policy issue for the Alberta government. It is about access but it is also about broadband equality - or at least equity for smaller communities and remote citizens. It has serious implications for free speech protections and consumer rights protections from the big providers like Telus, Bell, Rogers and Shaw and how they want to change things to reduce competition and "shape" access to the Internet. More on that later.

A collaborative community-based effort is emerging around these issues called Communities Without Boundaries. They just staged a successful province-wide SuperNet based day-long video conference event on October 31 on the various issues of rural broadband access, equity, and services.

In addition we see the Alberta government sponsoring a new wireless First Responder integrated province-wide system for use by police, fire, ambulance, emergency measures and others. The "others" have to enable the new towers for this system to be regulated so private sector wireless ISPs can co-locate on them to meet broadband needs of remote citizens. Competition amongst ISPs is a good thing but hundreds of individual and expensive ISP towers blighting the landscape is not a good thing.

I am working with The Internet Centre,the first commercial ISP in Alberta, seeking a CRTC ruling requiring Telus to province access to their copper telephone wires to be used for SuperNet access in communities all over Alberta. The old-fashioned idea of copper wire is an inexpensive, ubiquitous, reliable and robust way for individuals, community organizations and business in small towns and cities all over Alberta to get access to the SuperNet big pipe. This connectivity is as transformative for rural communities as rural electrification and telephony was decades ago.

Telus is opposing the CRTC application but AXIA, the operator of the SuperNet for the province is in support. We expect a decision before Christmas and here is the link to the CRTC page with the details on all the application submissions.

Lots of changes are in the wireless air and even buried underground in the form of copper telephone wire. The issues are a vast array of concerns about fairness, equality, free speech, consumer rights, competition and regulation, sustainable communities, productivity, connectivity and globalization. Stay tuned to this blog for new developments and commentary.