The head of the Columbia Basin Trust says his organization has decided to take on the ‘last mile’ to help Slocan Valley residents connect to a high-speed internet trunk line being built up the valley.
Trust CEO Johnny Strilaeff says the CBT board made the decision to tackle the problem of getting high-speed connections to people’s homes in late 2020, at a review of the business plan for its subsidiary, Columbia Basin Broadband Corporation, to build the $10 million fibre-optic line.
“It is a core, fundamental change to the business plan we have in place for our broadband venture,” he said. “The 10-year business plan includes a financial commitment that is very, very significant – it’s in the eight figures. It’s in light of the increased cost and complexity of just moving from the backbone to bringing connectivity right to people’s doorsteps.”
The fibre-optic line, first announced in March 2019, will see a high-speed ‘backbone’ for people living from Playmor Junction to past Nakusp, and is expected to be completed by 2022. However, how to get the connection from that backbone or trunk line to people’s homes has proved a bigger problem than first imagined, with some local leaders saying their communities didn’t have the capacity to install the necessary infrastructure.
“Our original business model was built around the Trust building the backbone, taking it to the doorstep of a community and supporting the community to build out the last-mile fibre to the home,” explains Strilaeff. “Whether it was the community or internet service providers, that would be the nature of the partnership. They would take it to the home.”
But he says while that model had worked in the past with larger communities, it faltered with the reality of the valley’s smaller, more isolated towns.
“How do you go to some of our more rural communities and, given the complexity and the cost of doing this work, realistically expect it to happen? We’re not blind to that,” says Strilaeff. “So we had to change course. If it’s going to get into some of our smaller communities, we have to play a role.”
It’s a massive upgrade in the size and scope of the project for the Columbia Basin Broadband Corporation. While numbers are still being crunched, Strilaeff says estimates put the final cost of connecting everyone in the Basin (including doing the same thing for a sister trunk-line project in the East Kootenay) in the nine-figure range. That’s over $100 million.
That’s not an amount the Trust can manage on its own.
“To make any headway whatsoever in connectivity it takes partnerships,” he says. “There is no single government, or organization, or internet provider that is going to do it on their own. Everybody needs to be at the table, to bring their expertise, their knowledge and resources.”
Strilaeff says the project has benefitted from good working relationships among the players so far.
“The leadership shown by the regional district representatives is really quite extraordinary,” he says. “And they are really hearing it from constituents as you can imagine, the frustration is they very much want to see this prioritized.”
That push from an impatient public has the various parties co-operating to solve the problem.
“Partnerships are critical, it’s a requirement,” he says. “Without partnerships between levels of government, the Trust, ISPs, I worry we will not be able to achieve anything near the definition of success.”
“Not hard to solve”
Meanwhile, Strilaeff says planning on the initial project – building the trunk line – continues. The chief builder has been secured and key supply contracts have been signed. And despite “frustration” with the permitting process, work on installing the trunk line is expected to begin in the spring.
Despite the roadblocks and frustrations, Strilaeff says he’s confident this piece of infrastructure will be built, bringing new economic opportunity to the region.
“You know, at the Trust we work on some really tough issues, and to be honest, some of the issues we want to address, we may not ever be able to fully resolve.
“But this one is not hard to solve, this problem of connectivity. You have to have the right people at the table, the right expertise, of course it takes money, but it is absolutely solvable for generations.
“And I think everybody recognizes that and we’re all willing to put a lot of energy into it, and because of that, this is a problem we can solve in a relatively short period of time.”
Not an ISP
While the Trust is doing the heavy lifting with the construction of the line and household connections, they won’t be the ones sending you a monthly internet bill in the future.
Strilaeff says neither government nor the Trust has plans to become an internet service provider (ISP).
“No regional district is aspiring to be an ISP,” he says. “And the Trust has no aspirations to be an ISP.
“We will in cases where there is no other option, but I am just not sure that will be the case because we have so many quality, experienced ISPs in the region.”
He says the Trust is creating the open-access infrastructure that will allow other companies to succeed as providers – whether they be private businesses or some sort of community service model, like in Kaslo.
“We want to put the highway in place, and the side roads, but we still need to work with the trucking companies to bring the product to the house,” he says. “What we want to do is put the infrastructure in place that allows them to deliver better service to you as the end user.”
Strilaeff says once the infrastructure is in place, local ISPs have “terrific business models and services to residents.”
“These ISPs exist and are doing great work,” he says. “But so many are constrained by the limited infrastructure in place. The barrier to many is just the cost and everything associated with putting the infrastructure in place.”