Bell Canada and Terry Matthews’ Wesley Clover companies are putting their heads together to form a new technology innovations centre in Ottawa. Its mandate: come up with novel broadband-based applications for small- and mid-sized businesses (SMBs). According to one official with the federal government, the Bell-Wesley Clover initiative is a sign that the national capital region’s once-busted tech sector is coming back to life. The companies announced the Bell Advanced Solutions Innovation Centre on October 6. Stationed in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata, the venture proposes to provide IP-based applications that speak to certain business verticals like health care, hospitality, retail and transportation. "We have a long way to go to bring the Internet to life for our customers," said Karen Sheriff, Bell’s president of small/medium business, at a media event in Ottawa. She said many of Bell’s SMB clients had to be convinced to try high-speed Internet a couple of years ago. But even as the small-business sector boards the broadband bandwagon, quick web access "hasn’t come close to hitting its stride" for SMBs, in part because "the applications have not been developed." That’s what this new innovation centre aims to do: build the apps. For instance, Bell worked with Bluetree Wireless Data Inc., March Networks Corp. (one of Matthews’ Wesley Clover investments), Mobile Knowledge Inc. and xwave (an Aliant Inc. company) on a "SmartBus" system for OC Transpo, Ottawa’s transit authority. The project puts March’s video surveillance equipment on Ottawa’s buses for added security. Transit officials can monitor live feeds from the buses via handheld computers. Bell’s 1X wireless data network carries the signal from the bus to the computer. Bell says the program could apply to other sectors beyond public transit. Bluetree offers wireless modems, while Mobile Knowledge brings the global positioning system (GPS) functions to the table. Xwave provides IT services like systems integration. Another project has Mitel Networks Corp. building a nurse-call system into its PBX for retirement homes. Combined with Bell’s DSL service, its ExpressVu digital TV service and other technologies for links among retirement home residents and managers, the partners figure this endeavour presents an end-to-end communication package for the retirement home industry. According to Matthews, Wesley Clover’s chairman, the innovation centre can help spread the message among SMBs that broadband provides significant benefits. "This isn’t: you have a telephone; of course, you want Voice over IP, because it’s IP," said the Canadian IT magnate in a rambling, shoot-from-the-hip manner. "Bullshit. That’s nothing to do with it. That is a rotten business case. You go in with tangible business benefits, meaningful things that the enterprise gets, in particular the small businesses, because there are so many of them. Get that one right, and you rule the world." Gordon O’Connor, member of Parliament representing Carleton-Mississippi Mills, a federal riding that includes Kanata, said technology innovation is key to Canada’s success in the global economy. That Bell and its partners chose Ottawa for this latest innovation centre is particularly satisfying, he said, referencing the region’s fall from IT heights when the tech bubble burst between 2000 and 2001. "I’m quite pleased to see this as another indication that tech is on the rise again," he said. Industry observers have long noted that carriers like Bell don’t pay enough attention to the little guys, especially as most Canadian businesses are SMBs. But the Kanata innovation centre is just the latest item in a growing list of SMB-specific endeavours from the company. Bell’s recent Digital Voice product, a hosted IP voice-data service, is another one. The new centre is one of 11 that Bell operates. The rest, located in various places across the country, are specific to network security, fibre-optic advancements, VoIP, video, and other technologies. Sheriff said the new Kanata facility will run about six projects at a time, although it has room to run 12. The building has 4,200 square feet of space. Bell counts as its strategic partners four Wesley Clover investments: March (which provides IP video surveillance gear), Mitel (IP phone equipment), NewHeights Software Corp. (communication management apps) and Ubiquity Software Corp. (SIP software for service providers). Sheriff said it’s important to locate the centre in Ottawa, not only because the area sports plenty of high-tech talent, but also because it’s where the big decisions are made: legislation and national policies regarding information and communication technology, and its impact on the economy. Michael Binder, Industry Canada’s assistant deputy minister in charge of spectrum management, said it’s high time Canadians gave the IT arena the respect it deserves. "People talk about the next big thing, biotech, nanotech. They have no understanding about the importance of this sector (IT) to the economy." He echoed others at the Ottawa event who said IT spells productivity improvements, which Canada needs in order to compete in the worldwide marketplace. Binder also said Canada "must ensure that those most in need are not left behind, be they remote communities, low-income people, people with disabilities….We must continue to extend the reach of ICT to all sectors." As well, "we must continue to roll out broadband to all communities in Canada," he said, adding that developing broadband apps, as the new innovation centre aims to do, aids that endeavour. Binder’s comments coincide with a federal government panel considering an important question: should broadband join POTS in the "essential service" basket? Having held a public consultation on the question in Whitehorse last month, the panel is expected to provide its answer soon.