Community broadband consultations commence

Although the crowd attending the public consultation regarding the potential pursuit for municipally owned broadband Internet infrastructure was not necessarily large, those who attended came well prepared with plenty of pertinent questions. During the last of three public engagement sessions all held on Tuesday, May 9 at the Sundre Community Centre, several dozen people heard from municipal officials and then got the opportunity to seek further clarity before filling out a survey. The goal behind the study is two pronged: first, to determine the local appetite for the use of public dollars on a wholesale broadband network, and second, to determine the market demand, or how many people would sign up for such a service if and when it should become available.

“We don’t know what direction to go, which is why we’re asking you to do this survey,” said Jonathan Allan, Sundre’s economic development officer, addressing the crowd.

“That is how we empirically track the responses and direction of what the public wants to do — this is a census-level survey.”

The municipality decided to investigate the potential for fibre optics because broadband Internet infrastructure is the “most modern incarnation of telecommunications technology,” he said. Demand for bandwidth to download data from the web has grown exponentially since the dawning days of the Internet, and that growth is projected to continue doubling every two years, he said.

“We have moved into a knowledge-based economy. We are an information driven society…fibre optics are essential to being prepared for the future. We need to be able to compete.”

So to that end, the community has been presented with two options. The first is to invest in a publicly owned wholesale broadband network that Internet service providers would pay the municipality a sort of rental fee for access to offer residents a serviceable, high-speed connection to the web.

The main benefit of that approach is the potential to generate revenue once buy-in levels are met instead of allowing profits to leave the community. However, if the uptake of 33 per cent of all premises in town is not met in less than five years, taxpayers could be faced with a mill rate increase to cover the cost of operations and debt repayment. Based on third-party estimates, the project is expected to cost as much as $2.75 million, and it would be rolled out in two phases over a period of two years. The other option is simply to invite a private company to install a broadband network, effectively removing all the risk to taxpayers. However, any and all profits would be siphoned out of Sundre. Additionally, depending on deployment by a private company could mean waiting many more years before anything happens, leaving the municipality firmly embedded in the digital dark age for the foreseeable future.

Among other concerns that were brought up during the meeting, issues revolving around the risks as well as the logistics involved in deploying high-speed Internet were raised by several residents, most of whom otherwise seemed largely supportive of the possibility not only to connect to the 21st century, but also to even potentially reinvest in their own community. Naturally, people also wanted to know what they could expect to pay every month. The rates, based on average O-NET packages, would be about $150 for a bundle that includes Internet, television and phone services. An Internet-only deal would be about $90 per month.

When a question about contracts was brought up, Nathan Kusiek, director of business development for O-NET, said there are packages available for snowbirds and that the company’s goal is not to force people into terms. Two previous informational presentations were also made available earlier that day. The first was for the general public with a focus on explaining the basics of broadband for anyone who was uncertain what fibre optic high-speed Internet is, followed later by a second presentation catered more towards local businesses. The meetings were all held under the guidance of Banister Research and Consulting, a well accredited and objective third party hired to create without bias a detailed consensus-level survey so the municipality’s administrative staff can compile a report for council to consider before making a final decision on the matter.

“I’m going to be honest with you. It does not make a difference to me one way or the other what decisions you, as a town, make,” said Tracy With, vice-president of Banister.

“It’s my job to objectively collect your information and provide that back in an unbiased way so that the town can make the decision about how to proceed.”

Within days of the letters being distributed, more than 100 responses had been generated.

For the most accurate picture on the community’s demand for broadband, it is hoped that as close as possible to the approximately 1,500 premises in Sundre will fill out the survey by the Sunday, May 21 deadline.

“The decision is being made based on the results of the survey,” said With.

“Talk to your neighbours, talk to your kids, talk to people at coffee, talk to people at church, get everybody to do that survey.

Because the more people that participate, the more confident that council and administration can be in their decision going forward.”

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