Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/8/2020 (641 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In May, the province announced it was issuing a request for proposal to finally activate Manitoba Hydro’s extensive, but largely underutilized, fibre optic network in the north to benefit woefully underserved communities.
What it failed to point out at the time was that virtually all the small local players, many of whom have worked with Manitoba Hydro Telecom in the past connecting one community at a time, had been excluded from the process.
Those smaller internet service providers (ISPs) have come together to form a coalition to make sure their concerns about their future access to that network are heard.
Specifically, they are concerned that if one or two of the national telcos are chosen by the province to be the gatekeeper of this key Crown asset, it might make it harder for them to embark on projects that they have undertaken which the larger competitors have chosen not to be involved in.
"We are really concerned about access to that network," said Ken Sanderson, the CEO of Broadband Communications North and the chairman of the new entity called the Coalition of Manitoba Internet Service Providers (C-MISP).
Sanderson, whose self-sustaining non-profit organization has built broadband networks and Internet access infrastructure for more than 50 remote communities in Manitoba, has always had a good relationship with the Manitoba Hydro Telecom (MHT).
"It appears they are trying to find a replacement for MHT and if they are turning it over to the private sector, specifically the large players, that is where the concern comes in," he said. "They are basically handing the keys to the kingdom over to one competitor."
Last year, the province issued a request for qualifications. All nine of the founding members of C-MISP were rejected.
In that RFQ it was noted that Manitoba has about 800 communities and transportation corridors that don’t have access to reliable high-speed connections but are either dependent on satellite for internet access and/or have internet speeds that are far slower than what is commonplace in urban centres.
A spokesperson for Manitoba Crown Services said that "historically the province has tried to tackle this significant issue with little success."
As a result, the spokesperson said, "Manitoba has taken a new innovative approach by issuing a request for qualifications last fall to seek carriers and other providers who could use existing infrastructure to make services available in communities across rural and northern Manitoba."
Manitoba subsequently posted a RFP on July 16, looking to work with one or more of the short-listed proponents "that will best improve broadband connectivity in Manitoba."
More than two years ago, a federal government-sponsored program called Connect to Innovate announced $55.5 million in funding to connect 72 remote communities across the province by March 2021. That program included significant contributions from the province in the form of access to MHT network, which is well known to have plenty of capacity to spare.
But that project has fallen apart due to infighting and bureaucratic challenges.
David MacKay, the executive director of C-MISP said, "Idle fibre is helping no one. But we see Manitoba’s RFP response as a gross overreaction to the chaos created by the Connect to Innovate funding."
The poor state of broadband access in many northern communities is becoming even more of an acute issue during the COVID-19 pandemic where travel conditions are already challenging.
The RFP process is a sign the province is finally trying to deploy an asset that is already there. The RFQ documents note that access to high-speed internet is "strongly linked to better outcomes for Manitobans from increased access to education opportunities, economic opportunities and options for communication between family, friends and communities."
The smaller players regularly interact with the large telcos, but are concerned about their ability to get fair access to valuable asset that is owned by a provincial Crown corporation.
The new organization, which is still in the process of finalizing its legal status, is requesting that the Manitoba government "consider and implement all reasonable measures to stimulate and support business viability" for this Crown asset.
Sanderson said they do not want to be seen as naysayers.
"We want to work with whoever. We want to be partners with them," he said. "Our goal is for every Manitoban to be connected, but connected fairly and in a way that allows for competition."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.