Manitoba must join the rest of the country in the delivery of a fibre optic backbone, the Manitoba Innovation Network (MIN) says. Demand for the service is outstripping delivery. "An examination of the pace of broadband infrastructure deployment in Manitoba indicates we are trailing other Canadian and U.S. jurisdictions," states a white paper prepared by MIN, the members of which include representatives from business and public sector. "Our slow pace of deployment and the high cost of access are affecting remote, rural and pockets of urban communities in their pursuit of social and economic development goals." The report, entitled Accelerating the Deployment of Manitoba's Broadband Network Infrastructure, points out that the province is not totally without fibre resources. The Manitoba Smart Network is joining five communities in the western part of the province. Brandon, Minnedosa, Neepawa, Carberry and Souris are being connected on a regional broadband network, which recently received its Smart Community Demonstration Project designation from Industry Canada. In the capital, Smart Winnipeg is wiring the Exchange area and linking up strategic institutions through the fibre build plan. Four Island Lake first nations reserves in the northeastern section of the province will be served by a digital microwave WAN run by the Keewatinowi Network. Plans are currently underway to develop or upgrade facilities in Winkler, Dauphin, the Swan River Valley, Virden, the North Eastman Region and Macdonald. "While this backbone is becoming a critical platform for social and economic life," the report notes, "it is bypassing a significant share of the Manitoba population." Topographic, geographic and demographic challenges have stymied the development of a proper infrastructure, it states. The Manitoba government has begun using the information highway through the Provincial Data Network (PDN). The department of government services already use the PDN and the health ministry will come online soon. The MIN study recommends affordable access to a broadband network throughout the province. "If one looks at the model for telephone and electric service, these services reached rural Manitoba, but only after the government became involved," the paper states. "There is a clear role for the government to stimulate the digital communications marketplace in Manitoba." Planning for next-gen CA*net Manitoba needs to upgrade its fibre backbone in order to remain consistent with the rest of the nation. Already CANARIE, the organization behind the CA*net 3 network, is declaring its system obsolete. At a conference in Ottawa last week, CANARIE's Bill St. Arnaud told delegates a major change needs to be made. With the backing of the CANARIE board, the senior director of network projects is advocating the construction of a CA*net 4 optical network, but concedes it will take a great deal of money. A system employing international wavelengths and national networks will cost anywhere from $50 million to $150 million. A Canada-only network would cost $20 million to $50 million, while a minimal backbone, which would not go from coast to coast, would require $5 million to $10 million. (Watch for full coverage of the proposed CA*net 4 network, including an interview with president Andrew Bjerring, in the next issue of Network Letter.) The Manitoba team laments the slow pace of installation in that province and points to the efforts in other parts of the country. Saskatchewan has created a single-customer buying group called CommunityNet that handles health, education and government services. The consortium has been able to leverage $50 million per year for the next five years in broadband infrastructure upgrades from local telco SaskTel. It has also reduced its network operating costs by 20 per cent. Alberta is following much the same track, establishing a strategic alliance with sellers in the private sector. The government hopes to have the entire province connected to networks using 10 Mbps or more within the next three years. The cost of access in rural and remote areas is a particular concern to Albertans. Quebec's emphasis is on school access through its Dark Fibre Condominium Arrangements, where school boards tend to lead the move into backbone systems. Partnerships with telcos, cablecos, utilities and railways often provide dark fibre which has already been deployed for use in another project. Industry Canada is preparing a detailed financial analysis of one or more of the Quebec school projects. It will later be appended to the Manitoba white paper as a supplement. While many provinces prefer government action, or some combined public-private venture, Ontario has chosen to promote the private sector, while still acting as a marketplace accelerator. Under the Connect Ontario program, community groups like schools, health care facilities, governments and businesses submit proposals for digital communications networks. The Ontario government has set aside $50 million in funding support for up to 50 communities wishing to set up broadband backbone. Some government programs operate on the theory that they may only go where the market will not and that no grand scheme can be imposed on all cities. Newfoundland, which will join CANARIE's Ca*net 3 network this month, has created the Remote Communities Service Telecentre (RCST) project. It is a six-site infrastructure employing satellites to give remote areas access to the Internet, telehealth, information dissemination and telelearning. Newfoundland's plans started small and grew. An initial outlay of $150,000 was parlayed into $3 million. Health plans were used as pilot projects but other networks decided to connect into the system. The Manitoba white paper focused on the activities in the above five provinces. It did not look at what is occurring in BC, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia or PEI. CANARIE's St. Arnaud reports that PEI should be logging on to its CA*net 3 backbone soon, perhaps as early as September. The Manitoba study also looks at the situation in Sweden and in the United States where municipally owned networks abound. The white paper is currently being studied by various Manitoba ministries and service providers. The MIN is expecting to ask service providers for RFPs by mid-August, with a final strategy being in place by October.