The Columbia Basin Trust says it’s still committed to bringing high-speed internet to the Slocan Valley, but many may not get the lightning-fast speeds the trunk line can theoretically provide.

The Trust has a funding application in to provide the ‘last mile’ to thousands of homes itself, but will turn to wireless, or over-the-air internet providers, to serve the rest. 

“It’s not like we’re changing anything. It’s more that we’re recognizing that in some cases the Trust will be able to move fibre-to-home projects, and in other cases it’s supporting wireless or other internet service providers to do more,” said CBT Communications Director Delphi Hoodicoff.

Speaking notes from the Columbia Basin Broadband Corporation, released at the Regional District of Central Kootenay board of director’s meeting February 16 explain: “The most feasible and cost-effective approach to serving those households is with improved fixed-wireless infrastructure, or other technologies, as opposed to fibre-optic cable.”

Last mile challenges 

The Trust spent three years and nearly $8 million installing a 125-kilometre fibre-optic backbone from Playmor Junction to Nakusp, completing the project last September. As impressive a feat as it was, it still left the problem of connecting individual homes and businesses to the high-speed trunk line. In February 2021, the Trust’s CEO Johnny Strilaeff told the Valley Voice the corporation would seek funding to complete that work, known as the ‘last mile.’

They applied to the federal Universal Broadband Fund, which aims for all Canadians to have access to speeds of at least 50 megabits per second download and 10 megabits per second upload. Maps have been created, showing communities that reach or don’t reach that benchmark. The federal program will provide funding only to those underserved communities. According to the maps, the federal program would provide funding to connect only about 4,000 Slocan Valley homes to the fibre trunk line with fibre-optic cable. 

That leaves hundreds of homes – sometimes in the same community, because of the vagaries of the federal maps – without funding for connecting to the fibre backbone. 

“Our biggest challenge has been with the federal government’s mapping data, saying some households are receiving [50/10 speeds] and some aren’t,” says Hoodicoff. “We can get funding for half of Silverton, for example, while the other half is not eligible for funding. So that makes it so hard for municipalities to fund that because we don’t have the big funds from the provincial or federal governments.”

Since the Trust itself can’t put up the millions needed to connect everyone in the valley with fibre, it’s turned to wireless ISPs to provide the service.

The Trust will offer “financial support to Basin ISPs [Internet Service Providers] that provide fixed wireless service and that intend to apply to the Connecting Communities BC program to serve eligible Basin households. 

“This support will increase the ISPs’ chances of success to the program,” the broadband company speaking notes indicate.

“We’re looking at exploring partnerships. That’s always been part of it,” adds Hoodicoff. “It’s critical – these are all expensive endeavours – so we are looking to leverage, take advantage of funding opportunities that come forward.”

Not seeking provincial funds

Further, the CBT has decided not to apply for provincial funds to provide fibre from the backbone to individual homes.

“Given the high cost to serve remote households with fibre, the Trust is not applying to the Connecting Communities BC program with its own last-mile fibre application,” the speaking notes indicate. 

“Our application for fibre would have been so expensive that first off, it would never have been approved. It just didn’t make sense,” explains Hoodicoff. “So what we said is, as part of our objectives, we’ll support ISPs so they can succeed in their application and help connect these households to access speeds of 50/10.” 

Speed limited

But wireless connection to the trunk line only provides a fraction of the bandwidth a direct fibre-optic line to the home can. The one wireless provider now working in the valley, Columbia Wireless, has pledged to meet the federal standard of 50/10 when it connects to the trunk. Columbia Wireless did not respond to Valley Voice requests for comment, so it’s not known if the company will be able to offer speeds faster than that, but the fastest wireless service in Canada (from the big telecoms) is about 250 megabits per second.

That’s about a quarter of what a fibre line can provide.

Hoodicoff said over-the-air wireless will make the goal of basic, high-speed internet available to everyone, and said improvements to the service can be built from there.

She said the Trust was working within the realities of the funding and the size of the task at hand. 

“It’s phased; it’s working with ISPs that are already out there,” she said. “It’s what we can offer now, knowing that we can’t do it all at once.

“We are committed to future-proofing. We don’t want to put in something that will last five years and then we have to put in a new technology. But in some cases, it’s millions and millions of dollars, and no one would support that… they would say ‘go build some affordable housing instead.’”

Whether fibre-optic or wireless, when anyone will get connected to the trunk line is still unknown. There’s not much Trust officials can do now but wait for the federal government to approve their application to provide fibre to homes. That’s taken up the best part of the last year. 

If they do win the grant, at least 4,000 homes in the Valley Voice readership area will be eligible for fibre-to-home connections. These are the homes, according to federal eligibility maps, that don’t meet the minimum service standards now.

Those with current service levels good enough to make them ineligible for funding, however, will likely find themselves waiting many years for anything better than the federal minimum speed… which is about 1/20 the speed a fibre line can provide.

By John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 09, 2023 at 21:13

This item reprinted with permission from   Valley Voice   New Denver, British Columbia
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