There’s a theory going around Revelstoke that every time there’s a big powder day, the Internet slows down. The problem is that all those powder hounds come home from the mountains and start uploading their helmet camera footage to YouTube or Vimeo or Facebook.
As a result, the Internet in town slows to a crawl and because so many people are uploading their videos, it becomes impossible for people to watch said videos.
“That’s pretty much what you should say in your article, that we need the bandwidth for the end of the ski day,” local software developer Derek Marcinyshyn joked on the phone. “Powder days probably affect bandwidth.”
That may not exactly been the case, but its definitely been the experience for many people in Revelstoke, myself included, with complaints surfacing on several web forums. The Internet in Revelstoke seems to run at a decent pace during the day, but come night time, when everyone is at home from work or from playing outside, speeds become nearly intolerable.
For normal web browsing, it’s not so bad, but for anything bandwidth intensive, like trying to move large files or watch a video, it’s an issue.
Of course, the problem is more than just being able to watch that clip of a pig saving a drowning goat without waiting for it to buffer. It also impacts people trying to do business over the web, whether its an unreliable point-of-sale terminal or someone trying to video-conference into their colleagues at head office.
“What we’ve experienced thus far is not acceptable,” said Jean-Marc Laflamme, a web business manager who works remotely out of Revelstoke. “We can’t have any of our service providers in this day and age fail to provide on this basic right.”
There’s little doubt that good broadband access is a necessity in this day and age. Numerous reports indicate that it’s a generator of economic activity and a requisite when it comes to attracting new businesses.
David Falconer, a professor emeritus in the department of systems and computer engineering at Carleton University wrote in an article in the Journal of Policy Engagement that “Broadband multimedia telecommunications can potentially give residents and businesses in rural and remote communities the same access to worldwide service, information and commercial opportunities enjoyed in large urban communities. The resulting gains in economic sustainability and cultural self-realization for remote communities are arguably more significant than the benefits obtained by residents of urban centres.”
The problem for towns the size of Revelstoke is that the return on investment for the big telecommunication companies to operate here is comparatively small. Revelstoke, with only a few thousand households and businesses, provides about the same number of customers as a large office tower in downtown Vancouver, and it’s a lot more spread out, noted Marcinyshyn.
Right now, Telus is the only company that runs Internet hardware into town. They have several large fibre-optics pipes running through the province. That pipe is tapped into and brought to a central switching point downtown. From there, the signal is relayed to businesses and homes around town.
Shawn Hall, a spokesperson for the company, said they were aware of the Internet issues in Revelstoke and were installing two new state-of-the-art pieces of equipment to help improve reliability here.
“We are well aware of the challenge in Revelstoke and we know why it happened,” he said. “The demand for Internet bandwidth is rapidly increasing. The new technology we’re installing is going to meet that growing demand for some time to come.”
Right now, the fastest bandwidth available for customers in Revelstoke is 6.0 megabits per second. A limited number of 15 mbps lines are also available for high-bandwidth users like Marcinyshyn, who needs to be able to download and upload large video files for the pre-movie entertainment at the Roxy Theatre, and for the R-Media video screens in businesses around town.
In theory, 6 mbps should be enough for standard Internet use, including watching videos, but other logjams, such as the number of ports available exist. It also depends on your provider. Telus uses ADSL lines, where speed is impacted by your distance from the main hub. Revelstoke Cable uses cable lines, which is impacted by the number of people sharing your line.
Revelstoke is not alone in facing bandwidth issues. The Columbia Basin Trust has established the Columbia Basic Broadband Corporation (CBBC) to help communities deal with the issue.
“Our mandate is to build a world class open-access network to improve connectivity in the basin,” said Mark Halwa, the Chief Operating Officer of CBBC. “It’s challenging for communities the size of Revelstoke and even more challenging for communities that are much smaller, say Kaslo, to get really good broadband.”
CBBC’s role is to build a big, 100 mbps fibre-optics cable and connect it to interested basin communities. In Revelstoke, the cable would run from the main lines passing by town along the train tracks and bring it into Revelstoke City Hall. From there, it’s up to the city to decide what to with it. They could keep it in house, hook up select businesses, strike a deal with a telecommunications company to make use of it, or set up their own city-wide network, said Halwa.
Fast Internet access is considered a necessity both economically and socially these days. As Falconer wrote, it helps businesses operate and helps people keep in touch with the rest of the world. Students can take high school and university classes remotely and medical specialists can diagnose patients remotely.
“New business is not going to come to town if their impression of coming to Revelstoke is absolutely poor connection speeds,” said Laflamme. “Believe me, I’ve chatted with quite a few visitors in town who don’t know if they can work here as an IT guy from the city.”
Halwa pointed me to a 2003 report about the city of Cedar Falls, Iowa, and its sister city Waterloo. Cedar Falls, a city of about 36,000 people, invested in a city-wide broadband network in the mid-1990s. It made the network one of four utilities owned by its municipally-owned utility company along with water, electricity, natural gas. Schools, hospitals, industrial yards, shopping centres and residences were connected to the network. In 1997, when most people were still using dial-up, it created a 10 mbps citywide Ethernet network that by 2003 provided more than 5,500 customers with high speed Internet access.
The report concluded that the availability of broadband provided boosts to the city’s schools, hospitals, businesses and industry. Comparing it to its neighbour Waterloo, the report said the network provided Cedar Falls with a competitive advantage.
“There may be no single thing more important in a community’s efforts to achieve economic well-being than to grasp the role that telecommunications plays in creating meaningful jobs, enhanced education and world-class healthcare,” wrote Doris J.Kelley, the reports author and the business development manager for the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities. “Now, more than ever, the direct link is evident between advanced communications and productivity and economic development.”
While the report is a decade old, Halwa said it holds true today.
A working group has been formed to look at bringing more bandwidth into Revelstoke. Right now they’ve only had a few meetings, so whether that means working with CBBC or with a company like Telus is still to be determined.
“We’re looking at offering Internet not only a consistent level but certainly with the highest speed possible and also at a good rate,” said Laflamme, who is part of the group.
With the CBBC, the cost of bringing the fibre-optics pipe into town would be covered and it would be up to the city to set up the network in town. “How it gets out of City Hall is up to City Hall,” said Halwa. “Usually when we get to that point, that’s when the municipalities know what Telus and Shaw are up against. Usually they comment on the lack of residents.”
He added that having a fast fibre-optics connection throughout the Columbia Basin could also lead to reduced IT for municipal governments by allowing to share resources. Instead of having 29 communities each running their own servers and applications for the multitude of city needs, they could specialize in one area. So Revelstoke could run the e-mail server while another community runs the financial software. Instead of the city IT personnel needing to know dozens of programs, they could specialize in one or two, and become more efficient.
“It makes a lot of sense to have one pipe that handles everybody’s data, and fibre can do that,” said Halwa. “A shared big capital expenditure like that makes a lot more sense than everybody doing it on their own.”
One thing that’s clear is more and more bandwidth will be needed as people start using the Internet more. Just the proliferation of Netflix creates huge strains on Internet infrastructure.
Judy Goodman, the executive director of the Revelstoke Chamber of Commerce, said the issue is on their radar. “If you want to attract business here that is high-tech, we’d kind of be hooped as we are today,” she said. “I think it’s key if we want to have that creative industry here because we don’t have a lot of industry.”
The 100 mbps speed being offered by CBBC is the goal, said Laflamme.
Alan Mason, the City of Revelstoke’s Director of Economic Development, said there have been talks with the CBBC. The issue will be figuring out how to distribute the bandwidth once its in town.
Then, “A group of skiers who had the most incredible powder day could all jump on at the same time,” said Halwa. “They could stream it live and there would no impact.”