Islands internet has plenty of backbone, but needs nerves

Local ISPs seek grants to help with high-cost connections

Haida Gwaii has a new fibre-optic mainline for high-speed Internet, but connecting to it is costly.

That’s why local Internet providers Gwaii Communications and QCIslands Net are both applying for a new federal grant that could dramatically lower the cost to get more homes on the fibre-optic line that the GwaiiTel Society had installed between Old Massett, Tow Hill, and Skidegate last year.

Jeff Lavoie, owner of Gwaii Communications, says the more spread out the houses, the costlier they are to connect.

In Tow Hill, for example, Gwaii Communications was quoted $477,000 to run fibre-optic connections to the 74 lots between Ops Beach and the end of the pavement on Tow Hill Road.

It’s a rough estimate, and some lots have multiple homes that would share a connection, but it works out to approximately $6,500 per lot.

Across the north end, the per-lot cost would be lower in Old Massett and Masset perhaps around $2,000 but much more in Tlell, where it could run as high as $9,000. Connections would be costlier still for the few homes along Nadu Road and Highway 16.

“We’ve got to bridge that gap somehow,” said Lavoie, speaking at a meeting for Tow Hill residents.

If Gwaii Communications can secure a federal Connect to Innovate grant a new $500-million fund that aims to bring high-speed Internet to 300 remote communities by 2021— it would cut brand-new connections by 75 per cent, and upgrades to under-served areas by 50 per cent.

In Tow Hill, for example, the per-lot cost would be cut to about $1,600.

Lavoie is looking at ways to further lower the cost, either by doing some of the connections itself Gwaii Communications plans to put most of that work out for tender or to secure other grants, perhaps from the Northern Development Initiative Trust or the Gwaii Trust Society.

Denise Collison, who lives in Tow Hill, likes the sound of that idea.

“Can we have fibre-optics instead of turkey next year?” she joked, referring to the Christmas turkeys that come courtesy of Gwaii Trust.

Next week, Gwaii Communications will send out a newsletter that explains its connections plan in detail. If the grant comes through, connecting the new homes could take about a year.

As part of its application, which is due in March, the company is seeking letters of community support signing them does not oblige anyone to sign up for service.

In the south end, Jim Pazarena of QCIslands Net says most of his customers already have what the federal grant defines as the minimum for high-speed internet so-called “five and one,” or 5 Mbps downloads, and 1 Mbps uploads.

But Pazarena is applying to connect more homes in Tlell and Lawn Hill, and to upgrade connections in Sandspit and Port Clements.

“Tlell is suffering,” said Pazarena, noting that just a handful of its roughly 50 households have high-speed.

Port Clements is well served except for Bayview Drive toward Juskatla and homes along the highway, he said, while Sandspit is only connected right along Beach Road and the entrances to School and Park Roads.

Most of Pazarena’s distribution network is wireless, running on connections capable of 10 Mbps downloads.

But Pazarena would like to upgrade all his wireless connections to LTE, which is the technology that cell phone companies now use for high-speed connections, capable of downloads up to 50 Mbps.

“I think Haida Gwaii is prime for a combination of LTE and fibre,” he said, noting that LTE connections are much less costly than fibre-optic ones, and not affected by tree cover.

However Haida Gwaii homes get connected to the fibre-optic mainline, eventually they will hit another bottleneck the 125 km, microwave radio link over Hecate Strait.

GwaiiTel doubled the capacity of that link to over 700 Mbps last year by adding a second set of radio dishes and so far, islanders have only ever used about 350 Mbps at one time.

But that could quickly change as more islanders get high-speed connections and use services like streaming video, let alone reach the new high-speed target of 50 Mbps downloads that Canada’s telecom regulator, the CRTC, set when it declared high-speed internet a “basic service” in December.

“We don’t have the capacity presently to deliver 50 Mbps to more than 10 people,” said Pazarena.

“But it will happen eventually, there’s going to be fibre to the island.”

GwaiiTel is already advocating for a subsea fibre-optic link to Haida Gwaii. Also, a national satellite internet provider, Xplornet, says it will offer 25 Mbps connections across Canada by the end of the year.

Besides the $500-million Connect to Innovate grant, the CRTC recently announced another $750 million, industry-funded program to extend highspeed internet to underserved areas over the next five years.

About 82 per cent of Canadians live where they can already receive 50 Mbps downloads, and 10 Mbps uploads.

The CRTC set an aspirational target of raising that to 90 per cent by 2021, and connecting the remainder over the next 10 to 15 years.