The Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) universal service objective for broadband access across Canada is for 90% of communities to have access to 50 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 10 Mbps upload speeds by the end of 2021 and 100% by 2030 or sooner. Yet a “digital divide” persists across the country. The government estimates that at the end of 2022, 91% of urban households had access to broadband that met the standard, while only 62% of rural households did. The number is even lower for indigenous communities; in 2021, less than 45% had access to what’s known as “50/10 speeds.”
Those numbers underscore the divide between urban and rural communities, but even within cities there’s a socioeconomic divide: not every urban community has service that meets the standard, and even the definition of “access” is problematic — a provider might claim its network meets those speeds, but the reality is likely much different.
This is a big deal. As more and more of our lives move online, access to seamless, robust network becomes more and more vital. Enter open-access networks (OAN), a business model for bringing “future-proof” infrastructure and services to communities. These open-access fiber networks allow people to participate fully in the world, whether they’re using services like health care and education, running a business, connecting with others, or streaming their favorite show.
What is an Open Access Network?
Open-access networks are networks built via a layered architecture model, where ownership of the physical infrastructure of the network and the delivery services are separate. Separating the delivery of services from the ownership of the network creates an open market, ideally providing a landscape that allows more competition. For example, service providers can join the network without having to build or maintain the network, vastly reducing their capital costs and making room for smaller providers.
“Capital has always been a barrier to universal connectivity,” says Mike Stelck. Major providers don’t see rural community networks as generating the returns they require, so many areas are left with inadequate coverage — a situation that hampers business development, economic growth, and resident satisfaction.
“We live in a world where a farm needs more bandwidth than a city block,” says Mike Stelck. It’s become so vital, in fact, that many farmers have had to invest in server rooms to keep their businesses operational. Others struggle to cobble together connectivity by working via cell phone, amassing huge bills, or waiting until they can go into town to connect properly.
The economic implications of underserving rural communities is significant. The vast swathes of seemingly unpopulated countryside generate 30% of our gross domestic product through agriculture, mining, forestry, and other industries. According to Statistics Canada, in 2020 small rural businesses earned $138.4 billion (representing almost 18% of revenue generated by small businesses country-wide), and medium-sized rural businesses generated $69.6 billion in revenue (14.6% of the revenue generated by all medium-sized businesses). As with urban endeavours, the internet is vital to their operations.
Making the Connection
Canada has experimented with version of OANs before, including Open Alberta, a project that linked the province’s education, health care, and government departments via high-speed internet across the province. That network was eventually taken over by a private entity, and eventually the rural tributaries of the system became victims of that allocation of capital that hampers so many others.
Rural Connect, a new corporation created by the municipality of Delburne and Red Deer and Paintearth Counties, aims to bring high-speed internet to the region via the open-access model by 2024. The three entities have invested $xx million in the project, which will see Valo build the infrastructure and Tether act as the service provider. Rural Connect will address the lack of investment from private providers, and as an open network will provide opportunities for other service providers to join. In addition to building the network, Valo will provide maintenance and management services to Rural Connect, allowing them to maximize cost efficiency.
The network has the potential to stimulate economic growth for the region, and drive innovation. Sweden, which established open-access networks in the 1990s to provide high-speed connectivity across the country (and started a program to put a computer in every home), has long been known as a hotbed of innovation. Companies like Skype, Spotify, and others — who have produced the tools we’ve all come to rely on so heavily — were all developed there. The Rural Connect project aims to deliver the same possibilities to rural residents, via one future-proof, high-speed connection.