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What’s Fibre Got To Do With It?

Posted on September 3, 2014


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What’s Fibre Got To Do With It?

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Broadband Access: Is It a Basic Human Right?

by Ashleigh Weeden, September 3, 2014

We love the Internet for it’s endless supply of cat videos and award-show-GIFs, Netflix streaming and up-to-the-minute Twitter updates on what our BFFs are eating for lunch.

imagesHowever, it’s the power of connectivity to link people and ideas that has countries around the world and organizations like the United Nations recognizing access to broadband as a basic human right. As as community leaders, we know that at the local level, high-speed connectivity – or the lack thereof – can be a make-or-break factor when people are deciding to move their families or their businesses to a community.

O’ Canada: The Great Inventor

images (1)As far as technological inventions and innovations go in the realm of communication technology, Canada has contributed its fair share:

  • Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.
  • The world’s first long distance call was made in Canada.
  • The first domestic communications satellite was Canadian.
  • Canada had the first commercial telephone system.
  • Canada also had the first nationwide digital network.

As a country who has lead the way in communication technology and been recognized globally for its forward-thinking cities, it’s shocking that there are still parts of rural Canada without affordable high speed Internet connection.

SWIFT-ly Connecting Canada

What’s happening in my neck of the woods (Southwestern Ontario, Canada) to make sure connectivity isn’t a barrier for innovative game changers, digital inclusion and global competition? Well, hang out here for a wee bit and let me tell you about a project I’m incredibly excited about and extremely fortunate to get to support as part of my day job: the SWIFT Regional Broadband Network.

wowc_map_webBased on the principle that everyone – no matter where they live – deserves access to high-speed broadband, the Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus, in partnership with the Southwest Economic Alliance, is currently working on creating the SWIFT (SouthWestern Integrated Fibre Technology) Network.

SWIFT’s goal is to extend 100% fibre coverage, with 3000 POPs, to all of Southwestern Ontario by 2040 by building an open-access network that will provide up to 1 Gbps service for approximately $100/month. That means affordable fibre-optic connectivity will be accessible to 3.5 million people – approximately 10% of Canada’s population – across an area of 41,286 km2 (or… er… 25,654 square miles), with service to communities with population densities as low as 4 people per square km. Pretty incredible, right?

Why Does Fibre Matter?

twitter_bird_funnyBut besides being a really amazing publicly-driven infrastructure initiative, why does a project like SWIFT matter?

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “connection” as: “something that joins or connects two or more things; the act of connecting two or more things or the state of being connected; or a situation in which two or more things have the same cause, origin, goal, etc.”

Connectivity and the act of linking people and ideas is critical to solving the complex problems that challenge us. It’s also what will help us capitalize on new opportunities. We’re living in the middle of an age defined by digital connectivity. With high-speed internet as it backbone, smart and connected communities are redefining themselves through meaningful and productive connection. (In fact, Kent Aitken wrote a great piece on the underappreciated impact of digital over at CPSRenewal.ca. You should check it out.)

Everyday-Im-BufferingOur ability to successfully address the wicked problems we face and our ability to pursue economic development and prosperity depends on skilled individuals applying their talents to complex problems with lots of moving parts. But it’s virtually impossible for those people to do that good work if they don’t have the right tools.

For example, if you’re a small fabricating shop and your connection isn’t robust enough link into major manufacturers servers, or if you don’t have access to the kind of direct connectivity that that will help you monitor your advanced agricultural operation – well, it’s not only frustrating to not be able to access the kind of modern amenities that we all enjoy, it makes it virtually impossible to support and sustain the economic activities that keep families, businesses and communities thriving.

Broadband Is Like…….

As local government leaders, we have a significant role to play in elevating the discussion about high-speed internet connectivity from perceived luxury service to critical community infrastructure. Some great analogies that I’ve heard used to describe this shift:

  • images (2)When you’re driving somewhere, say the airport, you might assume that there will be traffic or there could be an accident that might delay your trip. But you never assume that the road won’t be there. People shouldn’t have to wonder if your community has the kind of broadband service that will support their needs – it should be easily accessible and affordable and allow them to do whatever they want.
  • When electricity was first rolled out across the country, people mostly didn’t know what they would use it for until they had it. Often, a farmer would get a lightbulb in their kitchen and think “This is great!” – and then be struck by the inspiration that maybe they could attach a motor to the cream separator in the barn, which meant they wouldn’t have to crank it by hand – thereby freeing up time and energy to do other things. But no one thought of doing that before they had the service already in place. (Hat tip to Grey County Warden Brian Milne for this example).

“Story Gathering” the Case for SWIFT

So how can we change the conversation and make the case for the kind of broadband infrastructure our communities need?

downloadThrough both SWIFT and SWEA’s Intelligent Region Initiative, we’re collecting and sharing stories that reveal common patterns in the quest for revitalization – no matter the sector, agriculture, health, education, government, artists and business all have lessons to share. By working with economic and community leaders who have already leveraged technology to produce fantastic innovations – or who have been stymied by the lack of service – we’re collecting valuable information through a community benchmarking process.

Through work dozens and dozens of conversations and interviews, or “story-gathering,” we’re adding a compelling, people-friendly element to the regional data-collection effort. It’s one part research, one part rebranding and one part advocacy. Sharing local opportunities and challenges makes the data come alive and makes the issue of connectivity more concrete and relatable. And it’s through these combined efforts that we’re creating meaningful connections between the “how” and the “why” of what’s involved in connecting communities – and taking deliberate steps toward supporting sustainable, transformative economic development in Southwestern Ontario.

For more information about the SWIFT Regional Broadband Network, find SWIFT on Twitter at @networkswift or on Facebook as “SWIFT Network”

For more information about SWEA’s Intelligent Region Initiative, find SWEA on Twitter at @SWEA_ca or on Facebook as “Southwest Economic Alliance – SWEA”

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