Hope springs municipal: How small towns are driving Canada's digital future

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"If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself." Communities across Canada are doing just that when it comes to Internet access, through municipal broadband networks operated by local governments, public utilities, co-operatives, non-profits, or public-private partnerships. These towns are galvanizing Canada's otherwise lacklustre digital policy, as compared to the United States.

For example, President Obama delivered a landmark speech in January supporting municipal broadband in Cedar Falls, Iowa, known for its ultra-fast 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps) network. Then, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission redefined "broadband" to mean minimum 25 Mbps, a forward-looking national standard demonstrating awareness of citizens' digital-era needs. Meanwhile, New York state is investing $500 million to provide 100 Mbps Internet by 2019.

Canada's last national volley in digital strategy was Digital Canada 150, which had the less ambitious aim of connecting 98 per cent of Canadians with 5 Mbps Internet by 2017. Yes -- the federal government's aspirations for Canada's digital future max out at one-fifth the United States' legal minimum. Canada's bottom-third OECD ranking for Internet speeds (Ookla Net Index, 2015) only adds to the dismay.

However, pioneering Canadian municipalities have sensed which way the data is blowing and launched themselves leeward:

  • Olds, Alberta, created O-Net, a municipal Internet utility that revitalized Olds' economy and revolutionized education at Olds College, offering 1 Gbps Internet that is symmetrical -- upload and download speed -- and unlimited (no data caps).
  • Stratford, Ontario's municipal data utility serves seven rural communities. Rhyzome Networks established Stratford's reputation as a technological innovation hub, inspired the University of Waterloo Stratford Campus, and invigorated rural medical care.
  • QNet in Coquitlam, British Columbia, leases excess fibre capacity, resulting in local residents accessing unlimited 10 Mbps Internet for just $20/month.
  • Fredericton and Moncton, New Brunswick, boast free, city-wide municipal Wi-Fi.

Megabit for megabit, these cities are punching above their weight, demonstrating how municipal broadband is rooted in sound policy and can spark significant benefits.

First, increased cost-effectiveness, efficiency, economies of scale, revenue, and savings ensue, including for other municipal departments that can use the enhanced connection to improve their own services. QNet, for instance, saved Coquitlam approximately $360,000 annually.

Municipal broadband also stimulates the local economy by attracting and retaining small businesses and creating employment, such as 700 new jobs in Stratford. Furthermore, generated value remains within the community instead of flowing out toward distant offices.

Fundamentally, community networks promote universal access, particularly in low-income or rural areas that private providers underserve. Municipalities taking up the slack recognize that Internet access is an essential service, and should not be left to private enterprise alone.

Furthermore, private providers lack accountability to citizens: Telus blocked its own union's website during a 2005 strike, and Bell Mobility charged northern subscribers fees for a fictional 911 service. With municipal broadband, addressing public interest concerns is the very point, and accountability is built in.

Of course, challenges exist. Opponents argue that municipal broadband burdens taxpayers, constitutes unfair competition, disrupts market efficiency, and imposes complex systems and technological responsiveness that municipalities cannot handle. However, incumbent carriers -- historically heavily subsidized -- sorely need such competition, and municipalities hold demonstrable track records managing roads, sewage, and other critical services with complex infrastructure, none of which are privatized in view of the public interest.

As a form of local activism, it may be no coincidence that small cities and rural towns are leading this charge. Municipal broadband has become a meaningful site of civic engagement uniting sundry parties. As O-Net's Nathan Kusiek told CKFM, "[W]e've had interest from communities probably on a weekly basis asking us how we've done this."

Perhaps Industry Canada could give them a call, as well.

Cynthia Khoo is Digital Policy & Research Fellow with OpenMedia, a community-based organization that safeguards the open Internet. Steve Anderson is Executive Director of OpenMedia. A version of this article was originally published in the March edition of the CCPA Monitor.

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