SuperNet Connects Alberta for the New
by Jim Bray
A digital nervous system now under construction could render
physical location in the Canadian provine of Alberta virtually irrelevant.
The project is the Alberta SuperNet, a pioneering move to connect
422 communities with high speed broadband service by 2004. When completed, the
SuperNet will bring the information-driven new economy to all corners of the
province in much the same way the railroad delivered the Industrial Revolution
to Canadians in the 19th century.
That's big talk, but is SuperNet really a Big Deal or just another
government-run make work project?
To proponents like Victor Doerksen, Alberta's Minister of
Innovation and Science, the SuperNet is that proverbial better mousetrap. "We
are closing the digital divide between urban and rural Alberta" Doerksen told
the Broadband Canada Conference in Ottawa last December.
He isn't alone in his enthusiasm. "This
Alberta," claims Ray Patterson, associate professor at the University of
Alberta's School of Business. Patterson sees the project as equivalent to
wiring rural North America for electricity. "It could be as revolutionary to
Albertans as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) project that introduced
electricity to the Appalachians in the 1930's," he says.
In a nutshell, the SuperNet is a broadband fibre optic and
wireless network connecting provincial government operations such as schools,
health care facilities and libraries all over Alberta. It's meant to bring the
province together while encouraging innovation, efficiency and cost savings in
the delivery of government services.
But it's more, too.
"(The SuperNet) also involves moving a Point of Presence into each
community so an Internet Service Provider can connect at competitive rates,"
says Doerksen, under whose ministry the project falls. "This opens up the
network to the private sector, erasing the line between urban and rural
settings where the information superhighway is concerned, and opening the
entire province for business."
The SuperNet will consist of two seamless areas, a Base Area
Network and an Extended Area Network; prime Contractor Bell Intrigna has
committed $102 million towards completion of the Base Area Network, with
Calgary's Axia SuperNet Ltd. sub-contracted for the rest.
Doerksen says the province's financial commitment to the $295
million project is $193 million for infrastructure costs. The private partners
will fund the rest and are obligated to provide the broadband service at the
same rates charged in the major urban centres. The agreement also binds Bell
Intrigna to providing broadband service at the same competitive rate if a
market exists in a particular area but no one has stepped up to the plate to
This should have a profound effect on the corporate sector.
Companies will no longer need set up shop near a major centre in order to
access their vital information sources; instead, they'll be able to locate near
other assets (such as natural resources) or simply where the lifestyle suits
Besides the freedom of location, SuperNet promises corporations
savings and efficiencies in areas like corporate communications and skills
training. Real time video conferencing, for example, means workers in remote
locations can participate in the same meetings or classes as people at head
office, using the same resources and expertise. This cuts travel time and
expense, whether from bringing in the remote workers or sending the experts to
And the rural entrepreneur will no longer be forced to the Big
City in order to get at the brains clustered there.
The advantages of high speed data access are already being felt in
some smaller communities, thanks to limited cable and DSL installations.
According to Bob Davis, General Manager of the Drumheller Regional Chamber of
Development and Tourism, "The service, to the extent that we have it, has been
very positive and makes people more flexible and effective." Davis says the
ability to communicate instantaneously with customers and suppliers no matter
where they are allows small rural businesses to compete better.
"If you're ordering a special part for a farmer or a specialized
piece of inventory," he points out, "You can not only order it but you can tell
your customer how long it'll take to bring in and you can track it along the
way better than ever before."
PanCanadian Energy has connected its offices to the Calgary HQ
with a high speed link and Mark Bieganek, a business IT analyst for the
company, says it's an essential tool in today's world. "Not having high speed
service is a real hindrance to your organization," he says, noting that more
and more companies offer services over the Web. "High speed Internet service
streamlines business activities, eliminates paper, cuts down on postage and
saves lots of time."
The SuperNet could also give Alberta a strategic advantage, making
the province more attractive to venture capitalists interested in start up
But the SuperNet is merely the vehicle. How it's driven will be
limited only by the imagination of those who get behind the wheel.
The U of A's Dr. Patterson likens it to the movie Field of Dreams.
"When we build it, (corporations) will come, and Alberta will benefit by
attracting businesses who want to be closer to their critical resources."
The bottom line is a more level playing field, and if the SuperNet
lives up to its potential it could help facilitate a better quality of life for
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.
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