Bowen Islander Robert Ballantyne says that, on a daily basis, he speaks to people all over the world – as if they were right there in front of him. Think Skype, but higher quality. Making use of this tool would be easier for him, Ballantyne says, if he could tap into an Internet network with higher upload speeds.
“But every time a service provider calls me and makes an offer, they talk about download speeds. As soon as I ask about upload capabilities, they go silent,” says Ballantyne. “I’d considered the possibility of splitting the cost of a commercial connection with a few of my neighbours who also work in technology. That would cost $300. When I heard about this idea to get an island-wide Gigabit connection I realized that the commercial option made no sense. I could pay what I’m paying now, and get a connection that’s 75 times faster than what is currently available.”
Getting a “Gigabit for Bowen” is an idea that islander Ken Simpson brought forward to council earlier this year and would mean establishing a community-owned Internet network offering a one gigabit per second (i.e. one billion bits per second) optical fibre Internet connection to everyone who signed on to it.
Ballantyne arranged for Simpson to give a talk on the idea to Bowen Island Rotary last week. He also spent the afternoon with former Bowen Islander, Deepak Sahasrabudhe, working to set up a live-stream of the talk. Despite spending the afternoon looking for a way to make it happen, Ballantyne and Shasrabudhe could not figure out how to get enough upload bandwith from Collins Hall to make it work.
Simpson explained to the group that our current Internet connections are “asymmetrical.”
“The Internet connection that you are currently getting on Bowen is maybe 25 megabits per second – in the download direction – but in the upload direction, it’s capped at no more than 5 megabits…. That’s a trick that they pull because they have a limited amount of bandwidth in cable, and they know that you’re more interested in downloading stuff than you are in uploading.”
Simpson also explained that having an optical fibre connection would mean greatly reducing the “latency” of your Internet connection, which is the time it takes for each individual bit of data to make a round trip to the Internet and back. The combination of reduced latency and vastly increased speed would greatly improve the quality of interactive services such as Skype and FaceTime, enabling high definition video conferencing of a quality most people have never experienced.
All of Bowen, said Simpson, is currently being served by less than one gigabit of bandwidth.
In a survey of the room, one audience member said that he was paying $40 per month for an Internet connection as part of a six-month promotion, but that ordinarily the cost would be $60 or more.
“The cost of providing a broadband Internet connection is $5 per month,” said Simpson. “That’s their actual cost. The extra money they [Telus and Shaw] make is based on having a duopoly that limits competition…. With community operated Internet we can definitely bring the cost down, and improve service dramatically.”
Simpson uses the town of Olds, Alberta, as an example for the creation of community-based optical fibre Internet service, providing a gigabit connection to every home or business. Olds spent $12 to $13 million dollars initially to set up their system. Simpson estimates that Bowen could set up a similar system for a one-time investment of roughly $6 million.
Bowen may also be at a strategic advantage in comparison to Olds. Lance Douglas, a former CEO of the Olds system (called O-net) was at Collins Hall for Simpson’s talk. He said that although Shaw and Telus claimed to not be concerned about losing a market as small as Olds, they reacted very competitively once O-Net was set up.
“The Olds Institute spent eight years trying to get fibre into the town. They worked with Telus and they worked with Shaw, and they just wanted to get the infrastructure into the town without the excuse that it wasn’t available,” said Douglas. “About 11 months after I got there we had the infrastructure up and running… Shaw and Telus started offering very deep discounts to businesses just to stay with them, and not move over to the local system. And then Telus started building a fibre network in the next town over, using something called GPON to bring fibre closer to each home – but not gigabit service. They hired the same construction company we were using for the deployment in Olds, forcing us to scramble for construction resources.”
Douglas said that as an island next to a large population area, Bowen might be able to avoid some of these challenges. “It’s unlikely the incumbent Internet providers will install fibre to the home on Bowen Island before they finish doing that in the rest of Metro Vancouver – and that effort will take years. Bowen will be last place – it has to come from the community.”
Scott Armstrong, the owner of Swift Fox Systems, was also at Collins Hall for the Rotary meeting. His company is in the business of helping small communities set-up and maintain their own networks. He pointed to the town of Milk River, Alberta (with a population of less than 1,000 people) as another place that has successfully started a community-based Internet service provider.
“Their service grew organically from a shared antenna service set up in the 1970s so that the population could watch television,” said Armstrong. “Today, their community-based Internet service employs three local people full-time.”
He added that the leadership of the system, which is structured as a co-op, is not necessarily tech-saavy.
Towards the end of the evening, Simpson told the audience it may actually be possible to set up a pilot project connecting a portion of the island such as Artisan Square or the Cove with gigabit Internet via cost effective wireless links rather than undersea fibre optic cable. However, before anything moves forward, a committed group needs to come together and get the ball rolling.
When asked whether he would be willing to spearhead such an initiative, Robert Ballantyne said he is not able to take on another leadership role but he would happily lobby for it.
“There are many people, like my fellow Rotarian Piers Hayes who say, I only use the Internet for email so what we have now is okay,” says Ballantyne. “But if we had the service that would be available with a gigabit connection, these people would find ways to use it, and it would become essential.”