Technology

Need for Speed

An Alberta town becomes an unlikely Internet innovator

Illustration by Jesse Jacobs

In the heart of agricultural Alberta, about ninety kilometres north of Calgary, there is a place where people have access to Internet speeds of one gigabit per second—making downloads about forty times faster and uploads 170 times faster than those of the average Canadian. Here, with the Rocky Mountains looming to the west and hills of Canada Prairie Spring Wheat rippling to the east, a community-owned fibre-optic network sits ready to feed into almost every home and business, using the same technology that Google Fiber has deployed in a handful of American cities. This town, however, has done so without corporate support. It has a population of 8,600, and it is literally named Olds.

Like many small communities, Olds has had to get creative in its efforts to stay economically viable and socially vibrant. The non-profit Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development has, among other things, founded a community-owned power utility, and tried to attract doctors by showing young medical students around town. In 2004, the institute’s technology committee, chaired by retired pharmacist Joe Gustafson, conceived what would become O-Net, Olds’ ambitious homegrown Internet provider. While he appreciates the novelty of lightning-fast speeds—being able to stream HDTV to six different screens simultaneously, for example—Gustafson’s goals are more practical: “This whole O-Net thing is to make Olds a good place to live. And a good place to live is a good place to work. So people will then come to build businesses and stay in town.”

Ten years ago, Olds was limited by the performance of its aging telephone lines—a common problem in rural Canada. The home Internet service provided by Alberta’s largest telecoms connects primarily through copper wire, with information encoded by variations in voltage. With fibre, however, pulses of light represent the binary code of 0s and 1s, which can be transmitted at a much faster rate and with a clearer signal. The Olds Institute believed that the extra bandwidth that fibre supplies would “future-proof” the community, drawing in businesses and new families. In 2006, the institute approached the two largest service providers in Alberta with an offer to allow them to sell their services on the network, but both declined. O-Net was created to provide what the big telecoms would not.

A similar project has arisen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the city owns a fibre network that also recently launched 1 Gbps service. In Ontario, the city of Stratford and a group of communities in the east of the province have experimented with building their own networks. In Olds, the institute owns O-Net and the infrastructure, but the majority of funding has come from provincial loans guaranteed by the municipality. The $5 million distribution system was scheduled to be finished in 2013, but construction delays pushed the expected completion date to the end of this year. Meanwhile, the project’s predicted cost of $14 million ballooned to $21 million—almost equivalent to the town’s annual budget.

As of October, O-Net had about 800 customers among the 4,200 premises within Olds. According to Nathan Kusiek, the company’s director of accounts, about one-third of the town must subscribe to make the network profitable. (The current plan projects that the debt to the province will be paid off in ten years.) O-Net’s 50 Mbps service costs $90 a month, about $7 more than the average Canadian price for similar bandwidth. For an extra $30 per month, Olds residents can get the 1 Gbps connection; businesses pay approximately $5,000 for that speed.

For Ray Cavin, an Olds resident and a marketing manager for a home builder, this means that uploading a five-minute promotional video to YouTube—a process that once took two hours—is now finished in less than a minute. After signing his home up for O-Net, he spent the first night giddily trying, and failing, to slow down the connection. “I was running Netflix and YouTube, and downloading a movie all at once,” he says. “I just couldn’t get the speed test to drop.”

With its wide streets and low-slung buildings, Olds looks like much of small-town Alberta. O-Net’s ganglion—a humming, windowless structure filled with stacks of servers linked by braided cords—is adjacent to the agricultural society’s Cow Palace, where the annual Spring Classic Jackpot Steer & Heifer Show takes place. The only evidence of what is arguably Canada’s best telecommunications service are the patches of scarred grass that cover freshly buried lines and the inconspicuous tufts of blue, noodle-like cable that sprout from the ground in back alleys.

The racks and wires that contain this experiment are as visually humdrum as any utility, which underscores the project’s purpose. Olds has set itself apart not only with the speeds it offers, but with its philosophy that the Internet is a utility like any other. “When you walk into your house and turn the lights on, do you wait for them to come on? You never think about how much water is coming out of your tap, or whether the sewer has enough capacity,” says Gustafson. “That’s the conversation we need to have around bandwidth.”

This appeared in the December 2014 issue.

Simon Liem is a former editorial intern at Harper’s.

Jesse Jacobs has published three graphic novels, most recently Safari Honeymoon.