(Who knows if this will be come a regular thing, but hey, whatever it takes to get me writing again.)

Last month I attended a meeting of the Communications Infrastructure Committee of BC, a “collaborative body composed of representatives from any organizations with an interest in deploying or using communications network infrastructure in the province of British Columbia.” It’s an interesting mishmash of municipal CIOs, ISPs and other entities with an interest in connectivity in BC that I was introduced to via some of my work at the BC Libraries Cooperative. It was my first time attending in person, and I’m glad I did. While I am not clear of what concrete action will come out of the group’s meetings, it did allow me to see a model of what could be.

The meeting hosted a presentation from Geoff Hogan, Executive Director, Southwestern Integrated Fiber Technology Inc, or SWIFT. SWIFT is a regional initiative to “build a holistic, ultra-high-speed fibre optic network across the region” of Southwestern Ontario.” If that’s all it was, that would still be impressive, but not unique. There are definitely other regional consortia and initiatives trying to create networking infrastructure.

What really struck me about these folks was what looked to me like a bunch of really smart choices they were making about how they went about this. If I understood it all correctly, they first went about amassing a large pool of funds, at least $180 million, from a combination of federal, provincial and municipal funders. These funds are used to incent telcos and ISPs to lay fibre. So far, so good, but nothing that exceptional (though that’s not a tiny sum of money.) But they have some ingenuous twists to help with sustainability and competitiveness of the resulting builds.

The first that struck me was the idea of creating a stipulation in the qualifying bid phase that proponents were required to share their maps of their exisitng core infrastructure. This is a vital piece of intel that telcos are typically loathe to share and will help avoid laying fibre twice.

Next was a stipulation that if you did receive funding, any fibre laid had to then be available to competitors. Not for free, but available. While we’ve seen general moves by the CRTC to require some sharing of telco infrastructure, this goes further and is a great step to prevent future lock in and monopolies. In addition, they require proponents to disclose the difference between their wholesale and retail rates, another good step that will help competition.

Finally, if I understood correctly, they are also creating a “broadband development fund” which requires a small percentage of provider profits be set aside in a pool for future development, ensuring longer term sustainability.

The presenter was right to highlight one factor they have going for them that is somewhat unique – in a relatively small area of Canada, 41,286 KM², live almost 10% of the Canadian population. So the rest of us, thinking about how to network FAR smaller numbers of people across much larger areas, would do well to factor that into our own strategies. It’s rare you get that kind of numbers that close together in Canada. Nonetheless, it showed to me how working together, these kinds of consortia and initiatives can create real movement and engage with the marketplace in a way that gets results but also protects the public interest. It gave me a little hope for the seemingly Sisyphean task to get the rest of Canada networked with real high speed networks. – SWL