Internet as a Public Utility: A Canadian Case Study

By June 23, 2016 July 22nd, 2019 No Comments

Even as Canadians attempt to sort out their own Net Neutrality regulations, repairing the debacle left by previous federal administrations, there is one Canadian city that is hoping to pave the way forward towards establishing high speed broadband service as a public utility, even if federal regulatory bodies are unwilling to define it as such.

For the last five years the City of New Westminster, located in the Greater Vancouver Regional District on the west coast of British Columbia, has been slowly deploying its BridgeNet strategy to bring high speed Internet connectivity to the city, hoping that it will be able to “leverage broadband Internet to promote health and social inclusion, with free Internet access, public computers and training.”

“BridgeNet is a key element in our Intelligent City initiative,” said New Westminster City Councillor Bill Harper. “This is part of a strategy to attract knowledge-based startups and high-tech companies into the city. There are a lot of pieces to this plan, but the idea is to come up with a cohesive strategy for building a health-care cluster.”

Frustrated by the slow upgrade schedule of the country’s main telecom companies, the city has decided to piggyback the installation of gigabit broadband service to its other public utilities, meaning that whenever a road is repaired or a new community created, Internet is now added as part of the infrastructure.

If you ever wondered what treating broadband service as a public utility looks like, well here it is folks.

“Our economy is shifting from basically the old industrial model to the new digital innovation model,” Harper said, adding that the hope is that by pushing Internet to the community that it will foster business growth and less disparity regarding information access.

That’s not to say the city is going into business as an Internet service provider, though, only that it has taken on the task of creating the backbone network to serve the city. Harper noted that four ISPs have already signed on to lease the network from the city, proceeds from which will be used both to recoup the capital investment and to reinvest into continued expansion of the project.

According to Harper, it makes sense for the city to be involved in the development and expansion of high speed gigabit broadband service because the city is uniquely equipped to provide the infrastructure at a lower cost. “This is a city-funded and city-owned network, and because the conduit is already there the installation is much less expensive,” said Harper. The city will spend $9 million over five years on the installation, an investment it hopes to see returned within a decade.

As it stands, the network will first serve the city’s municipal centre, business district, office buildings, and new high-density residential developments, “That revenue will be re-invested to expand the system to the rest of the city over time,” Harper explained.

So as the telecom industries both north and south of the border continue to rail against treating Internet access as a public utility, consider the City of New Westminster as a prime example of what that really looks like, where cities invest in their local broadband infrastructure for the betterment of the entire community, not needing to rely on the languorous upgrade schedules of telcos to dictate when people can get connected to fast, effective and affordable Internet service.

Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca.


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