Municipalities want in digital fast lane

Proposal suggests making internet service a public utility for capital region


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A feasibility study into making internet service a public utility in the capital region says it would give those municipalities web speeds seven to 10 times faster than those in Winnipeg.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/07/2018 (1705 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A feasibility study into making internet service a public utility in the capital region says it would give those municipalities web speeds seven to 10 times faster than those in Winnipeg.

The proposal calls for trenching a fibre optic cable in a ring around Winnipeg to serve surrounding municipalities, many of which have grown sizable bedroom communities in the past two decades. The fibre optic cable would be owned collectively by the municipalities.

“That’s getting the main highway in place for a fibre optic network,” said Colleen Sklar, executive director of the Partnership of the Manitoba Capital Region.

From there, each municipal council would decide how to proceed on its own, either branching off their own fibre optic cables down individual streets or even directly to houses, or rely more on towers to provide wireless service.

Internet service would become a basic right, similar to water and sewer services.

“We’ve got to get competitive. We know that’s what businesses want. We know that’s what residents want,” Sklar said.

In one case of lost opportunity, a company approached a capital region municipality about locating there and possibly creating up to 250 jobs. “The No. 1 thing was it needed high-speed internet,” Sklar said.

That’s something most capital region communities don’t have right now. Sklar said there are some people who are still on dial-up.

“Just outside the Perimeter Highway, there are people still tethering their computers to their phones,” she said.

Internet connectivity is also influencing the growth of the capital region by becoming a condition of sale on property. There have been reports of deals falling apart unless house sellers can demonstrate high-speed internet service.

“What we’re saying is this is really becoming an economic driver to have this kind of connectivity,” Sklar said.

Eleven municipalities are participating in the project to explore making internet service a utility: RMs Ritchot, Macdonald, Headingley, East and West St. Paul, St. Andrews, St. Clements, Tache, Rosser, Rockwood and St. Francois Xavier. The 11 municipalities account for about 80,000 in population.

Some notable absentees include the City of Selkirk, which has the population density to be served by a private internet service provider (ISP). Most capital region municipalities don’t have the population density to make it profitable for ISPs to set up service. Another notable absentee is the RM of Springfield.

The capital region recently set up a municipally owned development company, JohnQ Public Impact Inc., to undertake projects, such as this one, that benefits the community. It will serve as a procurement agency to achieve savings through economies of scale.

“Working together, we’re able to connect way more people than each community working alone in their own individual silos,” Sklar said.

Next, the municipalities hope to tap into federal and possibly provincial funding. Ottawa has set aside significant funds in its Investment in Canada program to improve broadband connectivity in rural and remote communities.

Subsidizing internet that’s faster than what’s available in Winnipeg might not sit well with the city, which has accused the ring communities in the past of having an unfair tax advantage. For example, highways are funded by the province in bedroom communities, whereas they become the city’s responsibility inside the Perimeter Highway.

Sklar thinks a capital region internet utility would create competition and force ISPs in Winnipeg to upgrade their services.

“This is a huge opportunity for Winnipeg to put pressure on their providers. We’re not competing because nobody’s servicing our areas right now except a few small ones,” she said.

While the feasibility study made a stab at costs related to a new internet utility, Sklar said she did not feel comfortable releasing any figures because they are very rough estimates. However, they are talking about very large costs. Payment would come from user fees.

West St. Paul Mayor Bruce Henley said the town of Hamiota in western Manitoba has already set up an internet utility providing faster service at lower cost than a private ISP. Morden has also announced it will make internet service a utility.

“If the municipality sets up a utility, it’s not driven as much by return on investment,” Henley said. With Hamiota, the council decided to keep down user fees and pay off its investment over 20 years, much slower than a private ISP.

“Whereas the corporate world is looking for the fastest payback possible, there’s not such a great need for municipalities to get back the return back as quickly,” Henley said.

RM of Macdonald Reeve Brad Erb said the municipalities are also looking at the possibility of partnerships with school divisions and even private ISPs. With school divisions, many of them already connect schools with fibre optics that the municipalities might hook up to the way Hamiota did.

“Is there a way for us to take advantage of some of the fibre they already have in the ground?” Erb asked.

Decisions on how each municipality might best use the fibre optic ring likely won’t be made until after the municipal elections this fall, officials say.


Updated on Tuesday, July 31, 2018 5:54 PM CDT: Fixes spelling of St. Francois Xavier

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