Nelson’s broadband infrastructure continues to be the most advanced in the West Kootenay and plans to continue expansion are underway according to city manager Kevin Cormack.
“Communities are quickly realizing that broadband is a key part of municipal infrastructure,” said Cormack. “In order to compete in today’s world it is vital to have high speed broadband in your community.”
Cormack said Nelson has spent the last decade building the current network, which has resulted in substantial financial savings on telecommunication costs, a newly created revenue stream for the city and a technological head start for the area.
“We have a diverse range of people that call Nelson home and do business throughout the world. We are somewhat geographically challenged and council felt that broadband would give our businesses the opportunity to compete internationally,” he said.
Currently the broadband network services many Baker Street and downtown businesses, as well as Selkirk College, police and fire services and local schools. The feedback so far has been positive.
“The schools and the college have seen a significant improvement in their network and the province was very happy to partner with the city on this build. Customers have seen significantly increased speed on this network,” said Cormack.
Dave Harasym of DHC Communications, a service provider that has teamed with the city on developing broadband infrastructure, walked the Star through some of the technological possibilities that have been opened up with the new network. For instance, Whitewater Ski Resort is using the technology in unique ways.
“Whitewater is one of the customers currently operating on the fiber optic network,” said Harasym. “They have instant data communication from the hill to their office downtown at amazing speeds.”
DHC installed a solar-power microwave tower that, paired with the network, allows the business to run transactions through their downtown office rather than at the top of the mountain.
“So you’re using two different technologies but the backbone connection all feeds through the City of Nelson’s fiber optics,” he said.
RHC Insurance is another example. “All their data, servers and telephone equipment is located here in Nelson. They don’t have to have separate servers in each location. They’re consolidating it all in one,” he said.
“They could have someone in a different city operating at the same speed as if they were in Nelson and the customer will receive the same service, the same account, the same everything. And it’s all easily accessible to their staff.”
Harasym pointed out that both Kootenay Career Development and Community Futures use the network for video conferencing and bandwith-intensive applications. Meanwhile, Free Ride Entertainment uses it to transmit large video files all over North America.
“What they used to do was put it on a hard drive, drive to Spokane and send it on the airplane to wherever it had to go. Now press a button and it’s there.”
He said the same service would be much costlier elsewhere. “It would be much more cost prohibitive to get the same service from existing service providers. The last mile pricing structures of the traditional telecom companies are not as competitive as what we can do here in Nelson.”
This is largely thanks to Nelson owning its own hydro utility.
“The City of Nelson owns the infrastructure (both overhead and underground) that supports the hydro utility. Fortunately, fiber uses the same infrastructure, therefore the city does not have to enter into contracts with other utilities or telephone companies,” said Cormack.
“We would not have been able to meet the provincial timelines to extend the fiber networks to the schools, colleges and other provincial buildings without the city owning its own poles.”
Harasym agreed, noting that though Trail has embarked on building a broadband infrastructure, they have yet to hook up a single customer. Nelson has been following the example of Coquitlam and Stratford, Ont. Both have been very successful in installing municipal fiber optic services.
Harasym said Nelson’s model is superior to those offered elsewhere.
“This is a dark fiber service. We can connect whatever equipment best suits the customer requirement on either end and pay the city a monthly fee to do that. To order a similar service from a traditional telecom company, they would want to provide equipment with it and sell you a connection that runs for a specific purpose or with a specific capacity. They are nowhere near as flexible. We are able to provide local connectivity at a much lower cost,” he said.
Harasym said this is a huge advantage for Nelsonites, and also generates revenue for the city as they lease space and connectivity. The broadband network runs out of a co-location facility in the basement of city hall.
“This area used to be a vault with big transformers and a bunch of electrical equipment that’s no longer in use,” said Harasym. “Now it’s dry, secure and ideal for a data centre. The old equipment has been moved out to make room for computer server equipment and fiber optics.”
Everything in the room is secured with an electronic card access system, and is under full-time surveillance.
Currently, though Harasym has a connection to his house, the city has not expanded into residential broadband service.
“What the bylaw currently states is that in order to be connected to the city’s fiber network, you must have a valid City of Nelson business license,” said Cormack.
“We are focusing on the business sector at this time…We will assess the viability of providing broadband to residential customers in the future. We want to ensure we can properly support the network before we expand.”
But Harasym believes it’s only a matter of time.
“Fiber optic connectivity will replace traditional telecom and media services. Moving into the future it will be just as ubiquitous as a sewer or water connection.”
Residents with questions about broadband can learn more at a website built to educate the public at nelsonbroadband.com.