‘Last mile’ debate a Gordian knot in the fibre-optic cable

·5 min read

Local politicians are warning Slocan Valley residents it may be years before they see high-speed internet service – even after a fibre-optic cable up the valley is completed as planned in 2023.

That’s because of something called ‘the last mile.’

“It’s frustrating,” says Nakusp Mayor Tom Zeleznik. “We’re going to be behind the eight ball if we can’t resolve this.”

While the $7 million fibreoptic backbone project is expected to make world-class internet speeds available from Playmor Junction to Nakusp, the problem is getting service from the backbone cable to individual homes. That ‘last mile’ issue has been the focus of intense discussions by valley politicians and municipal administrators for over a year – but with little resolution.

“The [Columbia Basin Broadband Corporation] will bring it to us, but now the community has to figure out a way to distribute it,” Zeleznik says. “That’s a big question.”

It’s tricky because different communities have very different needs.

“Some of these communities, like us here in Silverton, we’re tiny and super dense,” says Jason Clarke, who recently stepped down as mayor. “So if we had to do last mile ourselves, it’s not out of the question. But you take some of the other communities, like in [RDCK] Area H, they are so remote, it would never happen for them.”

There are physical questions – should the high-speed cable be extended directly to people’s houses, or should more widespread settlements use a combination of over-the-air connections and buried cable? How many locations will have access points, which means faster service? How will the connections roll out – who gets the new service first?

On top of those practical questions are philosophical ones. Should communities work individually, or collectively? Should there be public-private partnerships, or wholly-owned community-run entities providing the service, like in Kaslo, or some combination?

“We want to figure out a way to keep the asset publicly controlled so that you’re never under a monopoly with any one provider,” says Silverton’s Clarke. “If the provider is not meeting your needs, you can shop elsewhere and swap them in.”

Another problem in making a decision, says Zeleznik, is also one of capacity: none of the tiny communities dotted along the project’s length have the ability to install fibre-optic line or manage customers like a private internet service provider.

“How do you go about getting the grants? Our CAO and staff don’t have the capacity to do that,” says Zeleznik. “We need help. But it takes so long to make money, it’s a long-term commitment. So a lot of private companies look at it and run the other way, because there’s no profit in it.”

That’s got some local politicians calling on the Columbia Basin Trust to change its mandate to take on the last-mile problem.

“We’ve all been pushing for that for a number of reasons, but the most important one is we want any asset that gets put in, in this case the network that gives the last-mile connectivity, we want that to be retained under public control in some manner,” says Silverton’s Clarke. “The whole reason we are here in the first place is because there’s been one company that has a monopoly on the whole area, that’s been unwilling to put in fibre in the homes in the first place, or reliable high-speed internet of any kind in the valley.”

“It would be good if the [Trust] changed their mandate, but it has to go in front of the board,” cautions Zeleznik. “The board of directors has to agree. We’re taking a gamble by waiting for them to do that. And can we get everyone together to go to the board and persuade them that we need them to do it all, not just the backbone but the last mile?”

The Columbia Basin Broadband Corporation, at this point, will only say that it plans to install the line “to serve as a high-speed launching point for internet service providers wishing to offer their services to residents or businesses in the area.” Its support to the local governments to date has been restricted to offering advice and logistical support at meetings, an official told the Valley Voice.

Higher levels of government are also throwing money at the problem of rural internet. Just last week the federal government re-committed $1.7 billion dollars to have 98% of the country’s rural areas able to access high-speed internet by 2026. And during the provincial election, West Kootenay NDP MLA Katrine Conroy said her government would support any last mile initiative.

“Part of our recovery package is ensuring there is funding for more connectivity,” she said during the Valley Voice’s online all candidates’ meeting. “And I am lobbying hard to make sure we have funds for that last mile… It’s fine to have broadband coming up through your community, but if you don’t have the ability to connect it doesn’t really make sense. So I have been lobbying long and hard for that.”

Zeleznik thinks despite the support and money, it’s not an issue that will be settled soon.

“Is there a way to bring it all together? That’s going to be a tough one,” he says. He’s worried the Slocan Valley project may miss the windfall of government money if discussions go on without resolution.

“There’s a lot of funding out there, and by 2023 I am hoping it’s still there,” he says. “It’s nice that CBT is bringing the cable now, but we should be jumping on the bandwagon and getting the trenches done, getting the cable laid to all different places, so when the trunk arrives you throw the switch and away you go.

“But you need somebody to take it on.”

Zeleznik also points to new developments like the high-speed satellite network, Starlink, now being launched by SpaceX founder Elon Musk. By the time the cable is laid in 2023, he notes wryly, fibre-optic cable might be yesterday’s internet delivery system.

Tantalyzingly close, high-speed internet service – seen as a key to the valley’s economic future – remains a distant dream.

John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice