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SuperNet Connects Alberta for the New Millennium

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…will revolutionize 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 offer it.

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 them.

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 them.

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 opportunities.

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 Albertans.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006