With employees working from home and students learning remotely during the pandemic, an opportunity to bring faster and more reliable internet service to R.M. of Wallace-Woodworth ratepayers was a timely topic at last week’s virtual meeting.
Larry Oakden, Chair of the Park West Fibre Optics Co-operative, and Park West School Division (PWSD) Secretary-Treasurer Dorelle Fulton spoke to councillors regarding their organization and invited the municipality to join.
“Park West Fibre Co-op was initiated because our school division had difficulties with good broadband, inexpensive broadband, and they (students) were losing the ability to learn virtually through the internet,” Oakden said.
The non-profit group, formed about five years ago, was determined to find a better solution. “They invited municipalities within the footprint of PWSD to join them in the idea of creating a fibre optic network, and three of them took up the challenge,” he said.
The approach has generally produced positive results. “It (internet service) is very inexpensive, it’s very high quality and everybody that hooks into this is absolutely astounded,” he said.
Member municipalities provide the service as a utility. Customers are invoiced each quarter, and a levy to cover operational costs is paid annually. Oakden said there is potential for significant revenue generation. “We’re not really a competitor with anybody that is of a for-profit nature because we can offer it at a reduced cost. We are looking at a break-even situation more so than trying to generate profits for big shareholders.”
Fulton said revenue sources include customer connection fees, a municipal levy and a third-party contract with Westman Communications Group (WCG). Expenses include the hub connection, a service agreement with WCG for network repairs and maintenance, and contributions to a reserve for technological change.
Oakden said the cooperative has its sights set on expansion in order to secure its long-term sustainability. "We want to get as many municipalities and organizations involved in this (as possible),” he said. “It's not only good for the co-op, but for all of you, your constituents and all of the kids that go home in the evening and are wanting to do homework from home.”
He invited the Council to consider becoming a member of the co-operative.
At Present, the “backbone” a fibre optic line which services the school division as well as the municipalities of Hamiota, Prairie View and Yellowhead, does not extend into Wallace-Woodworth territory, which presents a challenge. “If you guys did become members, we would have to work out a plan to get fibre into the ground and extend it into Wallace-Woodworth and branch out from there,” he said.
According to Oakden, the cost of coming on board would be less than $500,000. He said that the Universal Broadband Fund, recently introduced by the federal government, may assist with as much as 75 per cent of the cost of getting the necessary infrastructure into place. “They want all of rural and most northern portions of Canada to be up to a broadband speed of 50 megabits per second download and 10 megabits per second upload by the year 2026.”
During the discussion, councillors weighed the benefits against the capital costs. “I think this is more of an east of the river kind of project for our municipality, because between Westman (Communications Group) and RF Now in most of Wards 2 and 3, I don’t know that you could look at spending the money you would need to offer the service,” said Reeve Clayton Canart. Deputy Reeve Val Caldwell, who missed portions of the meeting due to a temperamental connection, questioned the extent of investing public funds. “I don’t think everyone should be paying for something that only certain people get the benefit from,” she said. However, she thought the plan had merit, especially for the business community. “I think it would be a wonderful thing if we could do it,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the area that wouldn’t want it.” Chief Administrative Officer Garth Mitchell questioned whether resources were available to aid in determining the number of towers and length of fibre required to service the customers, all of which will come with a price. “That could get expensive when you’ve got a municipality as big as ours,” Mitchell said.
“The broadband area is certainly an important part of growth with the way the future is going with technology,” Canart concluded. He and Coun. Mark Humphries suggested they research the federal funding program and other options offered independently through service providers before proceeding further.