The Alberta SuperNet Research Alliance

David Mitchell (Faculty of Communication and Culture, University of Calgary)

Abstract: The Report of the National Broadband Task Force (2001) raised the prospect of extending broadband capability to virtually all Canadian communities within the next few years. The prototype for Canada as a broadband-connected nation is already under way in the province of Alberta, where, within the next two years, 95% of communities will be provided with broadband connectivity. It is expected that the Alberta SuperNet will provide these communities with higher levels of both government information and social services. It is unclear, however, how the network will impact such things as higher education, economic development, and cultural identity. This paper reports on a three-year federally funded research project studying the broad social impact of the SuperNet experiment.

Résumé : Le Rapport du Groupe de travail national sur les services à large bande (2001) soulève la possibilité d'étendre la capacité à large bande à presque toutes les communautés canadiennes dans les prochaines années. Le prototype pour un Canada qui soit une nation reliée par connexions à large bande progresse déjà dans la province de l'Alberta, où, dans les deux prochaines années, 95% des communautés auront une connectivité à large bande. On s'attend à ce que l'Alberta SuperNet soit en mesure d'accorder à ces communautés des niveaux accrus d'information gouvernementale et de services sociaux. Il n'est pas clair, cependant, quel effet ce réseau aura sur des secteurs comme l'enseignement supérieur, le développement économique et l'identité culturelle. Cet article rend compte d'un projet de recherche de trois ans de durée subventionné par le gouvernement fédéral qui étudie l'impact social général de l'expérience SuperNet.

Background

In the early 1990s, the phenomenon of convergence in information and communications technologies and services stimulated a new environment for political discourse: Canada as a knowledge-based economy and society connected by high-speed networks. This vision became a widespread topic of discussion within our universities, the media, and the private sector, as well as government and non-governmental institutions.

As a first response, the federal government set up the Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC) to advise on a national strategy for developing Canada as a networked society. Through a series of reports (1995, 1997), the committee suggested that the government should implement policies and programs to develop Canada's capacity in three areas: connection (broadband network infrastructure); content (digitized and Internet-mediated content); and community (networked development) programs.

The government took action first in the area of connection - providing resources in combination with the private sector to construct a series of nationwide commercial and research information superhighways. Matters related to content were more or less marginalized until about 1998, when Canada's national regulatory agency for broadcasting and telecommunications (the CRTC) ruled that no policies should be enacted to regulate the exchange of content over the Internet. Subsequently, the federal government has introduced funding programs to support the construction and dissemination of Canadian anchored content on the Internet.

Community: Connection and content for whom?

The idea that media should play a role in community development is also a long-standing tradition in the history of Canadian broadcasting - along with the mandates to extend network service and to provide "distinctively Canadian" content. Yet, while the term community appears quite early in the reports of the Information Highway Advisory Council, community - like content - did not get much practical support until the late 1990s.

The first notable emphasis on using new media for purposes of community development appeared in 1998, when John Manley, then minister of Industry, rolled out his Connecting Canadians Strategy (http://www.connect.gc.ca/). One of the pillars of this strategy involved support for the creation of 12 "smart communities." The idea was to invest large funds ($5 million per community) to build a series of high-profile demonstration projects across the country. It was hoped that these projects would stimulate further development in their respective regions.

In addition to the Smart Communities initiative, another program of support called the Community Access Program (http://cap.ic.gc.ca/) was implemented to help small rural and remote communities acquire basic Internet access and facilities. The funds made available through this program were quite limited and generally provided for only minimal equipment and a basic dial-up service located at a community centre. Although this program has helped some small communities to get started with Internet use, it has also magnified the digital divide that exists between these communities and the larger towns and cities in the south of Canada.

Partly in response to the digital divide problem, in January 2001 the National Broadband Task Force was established to consider a new vision for Canada as a broadband-enabled nation. In its final report (2001), the task force noted that at earlier points in its history Canada had been transformed by various technologies: railway transportation, mechanization, and broadcasting. The task force concluded that the extension of broadband networks and services held considerable promise for the development of Canadian communities - particularly those in underserved areas. The committee felt that providing broadband access to rural and remote communities had the potential to improve the quality of life in many areas: education, information, security, culture, health. Based on this view, the main recommendation of the task force was that all Canadian communities should be provided with basic broadband connectivity by 2004. Here basic broadband meant a minimum of 1.5 Mbps (megabytes per second) symmetrical connectivity.

The Report of the National Broadband Task Force raises a variety of policy issues related to community development.

  • Will the national broadband network ever be built? The main question facing us as Canadians is whether the task force's vision of a fully broadband network nation will ever be implemented. Certainly, there is little likelihood that the network implementation will meet the target of 2004, since the massive resources involved have not been awarded priority by the government. Any plans to construct broadband networks across a country as vast as Canada will have to take into account alternatives to fibre lines, such as wireless and satellite means.

  • If it is built, will it work? Assuming that over time most communities across Canada become connected by a system of broadband networks, will this system deliver on the promises of community development suggested by the task force? No overall answer can be provided here. Technically speaking, we can expect there will be ample bandwidth to run advanced applications in those towns and cities connected by fibre lines. And where there is ample bandwidth, there is good reason to expect that the level of public information services (e.g., health, government, and education) will improve. But we have no way of knowing whether communities enhanced by broadband networks will see improvements in economic development - and, in the longer run, in residents' overall quality of life.

  • How do we gauge the extent of the digital divide? At present the extent of the chasm that separates the haves from the have-nots is often calculated on a technical level. The have-nots do not have physical access to high-speed networks or, more typically, the capital resources to pay for such connection nor the hardware and software to sustain such use. Providing resources to correct this imbalance will constitute only the first step in resolving the divide. Further programs will need to be developed to train communities in maintaining the technology and becoming literate as users.

When the Report of the National Broadband Task Force was released in the June 2001, it was taken up and championed by Brian Tobin, then Minister of Industry. Tobin tried unsuccessfully to position the extension of broadband as one of the Liberal government's main priorities - alongside health, innovation, and deficit control. Lacking clear priority, the broadband initiative stalled. However, in 2002, Industry Canada was able to make a substantial move into extending broadband connectivity to rural and remote communities with the provision of a new program (funded at $105 million) to support the construction of broadband in rural and remote communities (see Industry Canada, 2002).

Case Study: The Alberta SuperNet, a provincial broadband network

While the National Broadband Task Force's vision of connecting all Canadian communities by 2004 cannot now be fulfilled, a version of this initiative will be realized in Alberta. The province is currently constructing its SuperNet1 - a comprehensive broadband network that by 2004/2005 will link 424, or 95%, of Albertan communities. The network will be constructed using fibre mainlines and provide 100 Mbps bandwidth to 14 larger cities and towns throughout the province, 10 Mbps to all other smaller towns and villages. In every community the SuperNet will be connected to a number of public access points such as community schools, health clinics, and government offices. The government has no plans to fund the extension of service beyond these community access points.

The provincial government hopes that the SuperNet will work to improve the quality of life and opportunity for citizens across the province - particularly in the rural and remote areas - by enhancing the provision of information services (e.g., government programs, libraries), social services (e.g., health, education), and community economic development.

Why it matters to social scientific research

When the provincial government of Alberta announced its plans to build the SuperNet in 2001, a number of researchers in the area realized that this project constituted a rich case for social science research for the following reasons:

  • The Alberta SuperNet sets a precedent. At present, the only network providing high-speed broadband Internet services in Canada is CA*net3, or CA*net4, the national test bed research network. However, this network provides full service to only a handful of research institutions - and no service at all to all other private-sector and not-for-profit organizations. In contrast, the Alberta SuperNet will provide high-speed Internet services to virtually all communities across a very large territorial area. There are no precedents for an experiment of this type anywhere.2

  • Broadband connectivity provides communities with more options to satisfy social needs. Broadband connectivity enables users to operate a variety of complex multimedia applications interactively in real time. In principle, this means that broadband can enable a community to do things that are not possible using other communications means. Such things include simulation applications for emergency communications, high-speed video streaming for "telehealth" diagnostics, and videoconferencing applications to serve any number of community needs.

  • We do not know yet what the actual social and economic impacts of broadband deployment will be for communities. Despite widespread claims for and against the deployment of broadband, we know very little about how it will ultimately affect communities. As noted above, there are no precedents for comparative purposes. In principle, broadband connectivity should improve the way government information services are provided to rural and remote communities. But almost all other issues remain open questions at present. For example: How will communities extend broadband services across their region if there is no viable business case? How will communities choose which value-added services to pay for in the face of more traditional options? Will the availability of new services shore up opportunity within a local area - or will it influence residents to move to larger centres?

We know that the SuperNet will be built more or less on budget ($300 million) and on schedule.3 However, many questions remain unanswered. To address them, a group of 14 researchers - based at the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, Simon Fraser University, and Athabasca University - teamed up to form the Alberta SuperNet Research Alliance. The alliance seeks to answer the following kinds of questions:

  • What services do communities want or need? The provincial government made the decision to construct the SuperNet as a matter of faith. The decision was not based on any systematic study of what communities in different regions of the province would like to see provided to them.

  • How much can communities afford to pay? The SuperNet will provide a set of basic public information services (e.g., health, safety, government information, etc.) at not cost. However, it will also provide an array of value-added services at cost in areas such as distance learning and enhanced medical and business services.

  • Are there alternative ways to provide these services? Beyond receiving free public information services, communities will need to estimate the most cost-effective ways to receive any particular value-added service. For example, in the case of an educational or health service, it may be more cost-efficient to either build a facility in the area itself or commute for such services to a nearby town.

  • How will network services be extended within communities? The construction of the SuperNet ends at public access points within communities; it does not involve any extension of the network beyond these points. The government is looking to the private-sector cable and telephone firms to take the initiative to extend services from these local access points outward across wider areas - or in those communities where the private providers can see promising business cases. Unfortunately, this means that it will not be implemented in those regions that are remote and sparsely populated - the very communities that may be in greatest need for social services. Ironically, it is here that broadband might make its greatest contribution, extending access to medical, educational, and economic services over a wide area and connecting remote communities to these essential services.

  • How will the network impact economic development? As mentioned earlier, we simply do not know whether connecting communities to a broadband network will enhance their respective economic development. There are examples of particular communities enabled by broadband, but no studies of communities connected within a large region. As with social services, whereas some firms may utilize broadband services to expand in their local communities, others may find themselves migrating eventually into larger centres in order to grow.

  • How will the network impact the quality of life? Again, although there exist case studies of stand-alone wired community experiments (e.g., the Intercom Ontario trial; see Singh, De Shane-Gill, Durlak, & Roosen-Runge, 1999), we are unaware of studies that compare the impacts on various communities within the same larger region. The planned Alberta study will need to compare how the patterns of daily life in these communities are impacted by the implementation of the provincial network.

The Alberta SuperNet Research Alliance has now received major three-year funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Initiative on the New Economy Program to study the social, economic, and cultural impacts of the SuperNet upon Albertan communities. It is hoped that these studies will provide lessons for connecting Canada at large - in line with the vision of the National Broadband Task Force.

The Alberta SuperNet Research Alliance is comprised of a research group supported by a number of partner organizations.4 The 14 professors in the research group are collaborating on teams involved in the following eight projects:

  • Public consultation with communities (David Mitchell, Janice Dickin)

  • Pricing value added services (Stuart McFadyen, Adam Finn)

  • Sensemaking and community life (Maria Bakardjieva, Bob Gephart)

  • Telelearning in northern Alberta (Terry Anderson)

  • Rural industry virtual clustering (Cooper Langford, Richard Field, Doug Cumming)

  • Disaster and emergency communications (Peter Anderson)

  • Enhancing Alberta's library system (Frits Pannekoek, Marco Adria)

  • Cost-benefit analysis of telehealth (Penny Jennett)

The overall project, which began in early 2003, is co-ordinated by a central team located at the University of Calgary. This team will maintain communication with the eight project teams as well as the communities selected for study, using a variety of Web site and portable group-to-group videoconferencing applications.5

The Research Alliance does not have the resources or time to carry out impact studies in all of the communities involved. Instead, it will develop a typology of classes of communities (e.g., major urban centre, small town close to major centre, small town remote from major centres, indigenous community), then select representative communities within these classes on which to focus. The research group will design some kind of general baseline survey to assess the needs and resources in each of the communities selected for study. Subsequently, other instruments will be applied, including more specific statistical surveys, ethnographic interviews, and cost-benefit analyses.

In carrying out these studies, the team will rely wherever possible on the potential of new-media tools to support collaborative research at a distance. In recent years, the national research agencies in Canada have been placing greater emphasis on funding nationwide collaborative research teams. The strategic notion here has been to build up critical masses of researchers in any particular discipline or field. However, encouraging researchers from across the country to work together in collaborative teams is challenged by the great distances involved and the high costs of travel. In response to this dilemma, a recent project entitled InSite was funded by CANARIE to evaluate whether the research work of representative national teams could be enhanced if they were provided with connectivity to the national research network - and training and support with broadband videoconferencing suites. The results from this project clearly affirm that the research process can be enhanced by using such an approach (see the InSite Project's Final Report, 2002, http://www.ucalgary.ca/insite/).

The Alberta SuperNet Research Alliance will use lessons learned from the InSite project to orient their own work. The team will use:

  • Asynchronous tools (e.g., e-mail, listservs, Web sites) to exchange information about the project among team members and the communities involved.

  • Synchronous tools, particularly videoconferencing over Internet protocol, to have conversations in real time with individuals and groups in the communities.

At the University of Calgary, we have been experimenting over the past five years with a variety of broadband applications that incorporate a manifold of multimedia tools (e.g., text, audio, audio-video). Some of these tools operate with very little bandwidth; others require medium or very high levels. Ultimately, our goal is to enable groups in rural and remote communities to communicate over relatively low bandwidth with groups in larger well-connected centres.

As the SuperNet is being constructed - and then implemented - our alliance will take portable and easy-to-use videoconference units into the field in order to initiate an ongoing discussion between the communities and our research team. We intend to co-ordinate these symposia using our Internet Research Studio at the University of Calgary. We hope that we can harness new media to construct a public space in which communities can define and assess their own needs for broadband services.

Notes

  1. The SuperNet project is a joint public and private initiative involving the provincial government and two private-sector firms, Bell West and Axia. Bell West is handling most of the construction and is looking for value-added revenues when the network is operational. Axia will manage the network as an Internet service provider (ISP) when it is up and running.

  2. To date we at the Alberta SuperNet Research Alliance are only aware of studies of stand-alone networked community experiments such as the InterCom Ontario Trial carried out recently in Newmarket (North Toronto).

  3. Recently, Bell West and Axia have entered into disputes over their joint construction contracts that may delay the original completion date of late 2004. See Gignac (2003).

  4. These include community organizations (Alberta Urban Municipal Association, Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties, Alberta Library), research institutes (Van Horne Institute, e-Communication Research Centre, Health Telematics Unit, Calgary Technologies Inc., Centre for Innovation Studies), and private-sector firms (Axia SuperNet, Bell West).

  5. All teams will be provided with portable Polycom ViaVideo units that operate using H.323 video-over-IP transmission protocol. Limited use will also be made of Access Grid transmission. Both applications were trial-tested for research use in the recent CANARIE-funded InSite Project (see www.ucalgary.ca/insite).

References

Gignac, Tamara. (2003, February 24). The SuperNet's high-speed promise is threatened by its slow rollout. Calgary Herald.

Industry Canada. (2002). Broadband for Rural and Northern Development Pilot Program. URL: http://broadband.gc.ca/index_e.asp

Information Highway Advisory Council. (1995). Connection, community, content: The challenge of the information highway. URL: http://strategis.ic.gc.ca/SSG/ih01015e.html

Information Highway Advisory Council. (1997). Preparing Canada for a digital world: Final report of the Information Highway Advisory Council. Ottawa: IHAC. URL: http://strategis.ic.gc.ca/SSG/ih01650e.html

InSite Project. (2002, September 30). Final Report. University of Calgary. URL: http://www.ucalgary.ca/insite/

National Broadband Task Force. (2001). The new national dream: Networking the nation for broadband access: Report of the National Broadband Task Force. Ottawa. URL: http://broadband.gc.ca/Broadband-document/english/table_content.htm

Singh, Danièle Thomassin, De Shane-Gill, Damian, Durlak, Jerome, & Roosen-Runge, Peter. (1999, Summer). The Intercom Ontario high-bandwidth residential field trial: Lessons learned. Canadian Journal of Communication, 24(3), 449-471.



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