Backstory: York Region’s Broadband Strategy Advisory Task Force had its first meeting on 9 October 2015, electing Newmarket Mayor, Tony Van Bynen, as Chair and Aurora’s Geoff Dawe as Vice Chair. The meeting looked at ultra-high speed broadband in the GTA. On 16 December 2015 the task force got an update on the York Telecom Network (YTN) and looked at broadband case studies. On 3 February 2016 members learn more about how York Region uses broadband and what its needs are. They also hear from Bell. On 30 March 2016 they consider the future of YTN and hear from Rogers and Telus. They get a presentation from the Intelligent Community Movement.

The Broadband Advisory Task Force is supposed to complete its work within 24 months. It will then be wound up.

Van Bynen promises ultra-fast affordable broadband

A year ago, huge chunks of Tony Van Bynen’s speech to the Town’s Chamber of Commerce focused on ultra fast broadband and the benefits it would bring. He told his audience he was inviting internet service providers to partner with the Town to create a more competitive high speed broadband corridor in the pilot area of Main Street, Davis Drive, Leslie Street and the Harry Walker Parkway employment areas. We heard talk of partners. But it seems to have gone terribly quiet. How close is he to delivering his vision?

This is the question in my mind as I make my way to the York Regional Administrative Centre. It is Wednesday 30 March and I want to see the Broadband Advisory Task Force in action with Newmarket’s Mayor, Tony Van Bynen, presiding.

Committee Room A is jam packed with telecoms and internet people. We are told MPs’ assistants are in the room, listening and taking notes. Outside, the visitors’ car park is full.

Broadband fills the room

York Region’s indirectly elected Chair, Wayne Emmerson, drily observes:

“We can pass a $3 billion budget and no-one shows up. But have a meeting on broadband and we fill the room.”

The irony of his own observation is lost on Emmerson. York Region does not broadcast or live stream its Committee meetings and Council meetings are live streamed but only on audio. There is no video and, shockingly, no archive record. It’s no wonder members of the public are thin on the ground.

In the 2014 election, Van Bynen promised to “invest in high-speed internet to create technology based jobs and opportunities”. Now “creating affordable broadband” is one of the Town’s strategic priorities for 2014-18.

So, how is it going?  When will blazing fast broadband be delivered and at what cost? Who is going to be providing it? The Region wants to focus on its centres and corridors, places such as Davis Drive. (I am assuming the conduits for carrying the fibre-optics we shall need in future are already buried under Davis Drive.)

Selling off public assets

Are public assets such as the York Telecom Network going to be sold off or leased to the private sector and for what reason and at what cost? What does the private sector bring to the table? If there are no-go areas for the private sector (such as taking broadband into rural areas where costs exceed anticipated profits) what role should the public sector play?

First up is Doug Lindeblom, York Region’s Director of Economic Strategy. He gives us an update on the York Telecommunications Network (YTN). I learn that YTN has grown from a single connection in 2002 to a 157km network in 2015. It links York Region buildings and provides communications between, say, Southlake Hospital and York University. More prosaically, it also allows Viva bus stops to provide information to bus users and it controls traffic signals across the region. Lindeblom tells us it has the potential for much more growth.

What should happen to it in the future? Lindeblom cautions against selling it off. Consultants brought in by the Region recommend the Region partners with MUSH (municipalities, universities, schools and hospitals). Now I am looking at a giant screen on the wall which tells me eight of the nine local municipalities expressed a preference for the Region+MUSH partnership option. The outlier is Newmarket which, apparently, called for a public/private partnership of this publicly owned and operated asset. What does this mean in practice?

Lindeblom tells us there are lots of examples of public networks being sold off at a loss just to get out of the business. Operating in the private sector realm “is a dangerous place to go for municipalities”. But it is not unknown. On the slide I see Rhyzome, an internet service offered by Stratford.

Now Lindeblom is asking for “policy direction”. (Translated, this usually means staff have made up their minds and are ready to guide elected officials to precisely the same destination.)

Lindeblom says the network should be kept within York Region and operated at arm’s length. I hear there are opportunities for future private sector involvement (through, for example, leasing fibre owned by the Region but unused, the so-called “dark fibre”. But he clearly takes the view the publicly owned network should not be sold.

Working from home

King’s Mayor, Steve Pellegrini, is now thinking aloud. He says that going in with the private sector could allow an expansion of the network. He tells us an astonishing 25% of people in King work from home and need broadband. The Region’s Commissioner for Corporate Services, Dino Basso, wants to know how we can best get the private sector to the table. “We want to get to the businesses in the basement.”

It is not impossible. In rural areas, fibre can be carried above ground on poles.

Tony Van Bynen is now talking about ownership and access to the network. He wants to know why municipalities can’t make the backbone of the network available to other providers. He tells us Newmarket has already done an analysis of the benefits of fibre and wants the Region to do the same. (I make a note to myself to dig this out. It is elusive.) He says affordability is also an issue. They should be taking to the swift project and others.

Embracing the private sector

The folksy Wayne Emmerson, fresh from his trip to Ottawa, wants to know where the Federal Government fits in “if they were to drop a pail of money at our doorstep”. He wants (unspecified) policy changes to make things happen more quickly. “I still don’t want to push the private sector away”.

On cue, it is time for pitches from the private sector. John Armstrong from Rogers gives an amusing presentation, punctuated by the occasional unguarded comment. “We’ve been absolutely terrible at getting back to customers by phone but that’s improving.”

He asks the question: What does York Region Broadband want to be? An end-to-end provider with a complete broadband network and content? Or, perhaps, leasing optical fibres to third parties? Or providing the network only, not going into the home or business (no “last mile”) This is jargon to the uninitiated but mother tongue to those in the room. Now we hear from Telus.

Emmerson says the private sector may be ahead of us and asks rhetorically: why are we in this business? “I have some concerns and this will come out in our report… It is concerning how far we go with taxpayers’ dollars.”

Aurora’s Mayor, Geoff Dawe, who always gives me the impression he hasn’t taken the trouble to read the paperwork, wants to know how the Region can partner with the private sector. Hasn't he any ideas?

Planning for broadband

Van Bynen is now pulling things together as he closes the meeting. How can broadband terminology and language be standardized and used across key planning documents, such as official plans and subdivision agreements? He wants a report. 

It makes sense to bring broadband into the world of Planning. Conduits for fibre should be going into all new subdivisions as a condition of planning approval – even if, for the moment, they are left empty. When roads are dug up and resurfaced, the conduits should go in.

The next meeting on 1 June 2016 will look at the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission’s forthcoming review of basic telecommunications services including those available in rural areas. Public hearings starting on April 11 will be held in Ottawa.

The Task Force will also be returning to the big issue of the York Telecom Network and its future.

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