Community-based Internet enterprise offers the possibility of higher speed for Ponoka consumers

Patchy Internet service in areas around Ponoka has consumers frustrated and seeking answers.

Patchy Internet service in areas around Ponoka has consumers frustrated and seeking answers.

A recent letter to the editor that ran in Ponoka News Feb. 5 showed some of the annoyance users feel about Internet Service Providers (ISP) such as Shaw Communications.

Advisors with Shaw say they have been working on the issue and have already begun the process to upgrade. A community update site has been developed for Ponoka: https://community.shaw.ca/community/forums/service-updates/blog/2014/02/20/shaw-infrastructure-updates–ponoka

“The first step to achieve our goal is to increase our capacity by expanding our fibre optic network,” states the website.

While there were no specific comments on Telus’s infrastructure, spokesperson Chris Gerritsen said the company had heard “the demand for even faster service in the community.”

How Telus provides Internet to urban and rural areas

In urban areas, fibre optic cables are used for Internet service as well as copper wires for wire line phone service. Internet service is also provided by the company’s cell phone network, which allows customers to connect when away from home.

Copper wire is used mostly in rural areas, but Gerritsen said in an email that the nature of copper wire causes electrical signals to degrade over distance. Internet service using copper wires — used for phone service — to rural areas is not viable. He says the best way to reach rural customers is with Telus’s cell phone network.

“In fact, 99% of Albertans have access to our cell phone network, so we are able to reach almost everybody,” explained Gerritsen in his email.

Telus has just announced its plan to spend $1.14 billion on additional wireless spectrum (radio licenses) to add capacity and extend the reach of its cell phone network, which Gerritsen says will benefit both urban and rural companies.

Forward-thinking community brings speedy Internet

While companies such as Shaw and Telus are working to improve their infrastructure, one ISP out of Olds — created through a community economic development initiative — appears to be providing customers with faster service than the two giants.

O-Net came about through the Olds Institute, a community group that seeks economic growth in Olds. The institute was started about 10 years ago with four central members: the Town of Olds, Olds College, the Olds Agricultural Society and the Olds and District Chamber of Commerce.

Nathan Kusiek, director of customer experience with O-Net, said the Alberta SuperNet was being developed approximately 10 years ago and the institute wanted to piggy back on improved infrastructure.

The intention was to have new fibre optic cables owned by the institute and Shaw and Telus could provide service though O-Net’s network.

Kusiek said there was a steep learning curve and volunteers spent many hours working out the plans. Then about two years ago, Olds Fibre Limited, or O-Net, became a incorporated. Negotiations with Shaw and Telus fell through and O-Net decided to become an ISP on its won right.

“We essentially had to become a full-fledged communications company just to compete,” said Kusiek.

To do that, phone and television services were included and the company launched about a year and half ago as the network was still being built.

At the time O-Net had 10 per cent of the town’s market share, now they have 70 per cent with a waitlist of people wanting to get on the network.

Kusiek says, last summer, some of O-Net’s customers were seeing 100 Mbps download speeds and 5 Mbps upload speeds. “It was the best on the market.”

The goal is to provide customers with the best service and speeds available while making money. But O-Net is not a typical for-profit company.

“Our only shareholders, though, is the Olds Institute, which is a not-for-profit…All the profit O-Net makes will go back to them and back into the community,” explained Kusiek.

The company is not without issues though and Kusiek feels they have had challenges with construction delays and other unforeseen issues.

Momentum has been growing and communities outside of Olds have reached out to the company. “Once it’s successful in Olds, it’s a business model that can be repeated in other communities.”

“It’s allowing people to stay in the smaller communities without having to forego the level of service in a city,” added Kusiek.

One challenge is competing against the larger companies that spend more on postage than O-Net spends on marketing, explained Kusiek, but he suggests people are buying into the community effort of the business. The biggest challenge he sees will be connecting those customers on the waitlist for service.

The advantage for O-Net appears to be in its new infrastructure, which is designed to handle 4K television streaming. Companies such as Telus and Shaw are facing issues an aging infrastructure.

“Just because we’re the new guys, we don’t have to adapt an old copper network to push as much bandwidth out of it,” said Kusiek.

A Google search of Video Quality Report will show residents of different communities how fast their high definition streaming is. Kusiek says Google wanted to show users how video data is streamed to homes and shows what bandwidth in an area looks like.

The results for O-Net have been positive. “We were the only HD verified service in town.”

Users can see what times of day are busier and how good their signal should be.

Kusiek feels Ponoka and Olds are similar towns in terms of population and distances from larger cities. He suggests there may be ways to expand O-Net into the community. “If your town council was willing to put up the money into a fibre network throughout town, O-Net would come and offer our services on top of it and partner with your town.”

“It could be an economic development thing for both towns,” he added.