It is almost 2020 and fast, reliable internet service eludes many homes and businesses in Burns Lake and in the surrounding area.
The Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako (RDBN) has budgeted more than $157,000 on several studies seeking ways to bring fast internet to the area.
One of those studies – costing $100,000 – is for a Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) grant that could provide millions of dollars to the RDBN in its effort to secure reliable internet service.
Despite the district’s hard work, a village in the Kootenays has shown that a community doesn’t necessarily need lots of money or a large population to bring in fast internet.
Kaslo, a village of just under 1,000 people, lies on the west shore of Kootenay Lake.
That community’s success in marketing itself and attracting new residents was among the key takeaways from the Keeping It Rural conference held in Kelowna on Oct. 7-8, where three Kaslo residents, including mayor Suzan Hewat gave presentations.
The Village of Burns Lake’s Economic Development Officer Lorie Watson and RDBN chair Gerry Thiessen were two people from this area who attended the event, and both returned here impressed with Kaslo’s achievements.
Thiessen shared with the RDBN board of directors meeting on Oct. 10 the success of Kaslo in providing most homes and businesses with fast internet.
A report that Watson submitted to the village council’s Oct. 22 meeting highlighted Kaslo’s “Escape the City” contest of 2018 in which winners spent three days in the Kootenay region village.
One set of winners – a young family – and one finalist moved to Kaslo after the long weekend outing.
Watson reported that the top things young, creative people look for when considering moving to a small town are not fancy jobs or high salaries but rather cultural amenities, high-speed internet and entrepreneurial support.
How did Kaslo pull this off?
“There was a small critical mass of people who had experience with fibre. And the nature of the community is such that there’s a lot of cohesive community efforts going on,” Tim Ryan, Secretary of the Kaslo infoNet (KiN) Society told Lakes District News.
The KiN Society started in the mid 1990s as a non-profit organization trying to bring internet service to the area when the web was in its infancy.
When Ryan moved to Kaslo in 2001 the only internet provider was Telus “and the only connection was copper DSL,” he said.
Currently, Telus’ home internet service in Burns Lake is delivered with copper infrastructure, said company spokesperson Doug Self.
By the time Ryan joined KiN in 2012 it was involved in building optical internet fibre.
Kaslo’s big opportunity came in 2013 when the Columbia Basin Broadband Corporation (CBBC) approached municipalities in the region and offered them fast internet connections if the local governments would build last mile construction, the final physical piece of the network that reaches a user’s home or office.
“Our village was about to decline because they didn’t feel it was part of their responsibility and didn’t know anything about it. At that time Kaslo InfoNet Society was worried it would turn it down. But we took the deal and did it,” Ryan explained.
KiN is a last mile operator and it recently finished spreading 72 kilometres of fibre cables across Kootenay Lake and around the area.
The RDBN considered a $42 million project last year that would have had the district play the last mile role in working with a company to link up rural centres with the fibre network.
The district put the proposal on hold, but later said it would be revisited for the CRTC grant.
Telus’ PureFibre network has been hooked up to homes and businesses in Prince George and other northwest communities such as Kitimat, Terrace and Witset, as the company announced in June. Communities in the RDBN weren’t on its list of fibre-connected locations.
One big advantage Kaslo had was its access to a regional backbone – a central data hub – which in its case was from the CBBC.
“Without that we couldn’t have got this thing off the ground. And then you have to build a distribution network. We’ve built a direct point to point system.”
By contrast, this region of northwest British Columbia hasn’t reached that point yet. A report completed last year for the RDBN by Sandbox Systems recommended that a fibre internet backbone be built from Prince George to Smithers so it could serve the communities of the area.
CityWest, through an $8 million project that was announced in March of 2018 has been building a backbone network between Houston and Vanderhoof that will eventually provide fibre internet to last mile service providers in the area, said Donovan Dias, Vice President of Sales and Project Management.
“Future last-mile connectivity projects will be able to leverage this fibre backbone network to provide affordable high-speed internet and connectivity services to businesses and residents in the region,” he added.
However, CityWest doesn’t currently have plans to build last-mile services in this area.
Kaslo also benefitted from a $260,000 grant, of which half came from the province, 25 per cent from the Regional District of Central Kootenay and the last quarter from KiN’s own coffers.
“We set out to provide single glass fibre to every taxable piece of property in the municipality first and then the Regional District of Central Kootenay and we’re about 80 per cent of the way there,” Ryan said.
“It’s dawned on us that a large piece of why this hasn’t propagated everywhere else is the lack of basic understanding how to do it and the phone companies haven’t handed out that experience. Our team was pretty skilled and had depth and we could plug it in and make it go. But that’s not a common set of circumstances.”