When Norm McInnis was growing up, the town of Olds was just another sleepy stitch in Canada’s wheat and barley breadbasket.
But now this agricultural hamlet can be known as the town that rivals Google.
“This is far beyond what Google is doing in Kansas City,” said McInnis, Olds’ Chief Administrative Officer.
Kansas City, of course, is where Google launched Fiber, a broadband service offering TV and Internet service with download speeds of one gig per second. Those same download speeds are now being offered by O-NET, a for profit company started by the Town of Olds and other stakeholders.
The big difference between O-NET and Google is price and profit: O-NET is charging customers $51 (US) for broadband internet service, while Google is charging Kansas City residents $70.
Meanwhile, all the profits from O-NET get routed back to the city to be used for other projects.
“The ability to generate revenue is amazing,” McInnis said. “We will being keeping money in our community.”
Broadband as a Utility
After other service providers refused to do business in Olds, community leaders got together to try and find another solution. Members from the town, the local college, the agricultural association and the chamber of commerce joined together to come up with a plan. At the time, there was worry that businesses would leave Olds for other areas with faster Internet speeds, McInnis said.
“We knew broadband is as essential as a pipe water and waste water,” McInnis said. “This is a utility. We saw faster broadband was happening in bigger centers, and we knew we were going to have make calculated risks.”
With that ‘broadband as a utility’ mindset, O-NET was created about 12 years ago by a group of volunteers, explained Nathan Kusiek, O-NET’s director of customer experience. While technically a for-profit enterprise, O-NET turns all profits over to a not-for-profit created, in part, by the Town of Olds.
That money is then reinvested in the town.
“We’re a community owned project,” added Kusiek. “People support that. There are yard signs all over town saying ‘we switched to O-NET.’ It’s something to be proud of.”
O-NET is a dark fiber network that connects to the Alberta SuperNet, a larger infrastructure system created by the provincial government.
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“The technical differences between what we’re doing and what Chattanooga, and the others are doing, is that we’re entrenching our cables in the ground, and they will use power poles,” said Kusiek. “That’s about it. The bigger difference is we’re a small rural community that is trying to take its independence back.”
A Model for Rural US Towns
Since O-NET launched last year, Kusiek estimates he’s gotten about a call per week from officials in other rural towns looking to emulate Olds’ success.
“I tell them it took a lot of hard work,” Kusiek said.
Initially, Kusiek said projections for O-NET included a 30 percent usage rate within Olds. To help entice new customers, O-NET decided to offer the gig per second download rate “to blow the competition out of the water,” Kusiek said.
Now, O-NET projects its usage rate will surpass 50 percent over the next five years, although Kusiek added the dream goal is 100 percent.
For such a small rural town, O-NET is a huge victory. Kusiek said it shows a path for other rural towns looking to improve Internet speed, while lowering costs to consumers and making money for the municipality.
Not that it’s an easy task.
In order to offer the service, O-NET had a heap of red-tape to cut through, including applying and receiving a television broadcast license from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), while garnering support from the community and business groups.
“At the early stages, it was difficult,” said Norm McInnis. “First, people don’t understand broadband. Then, the licensing…other companies wouldn’t come and play. We had companies on the verge of leaving because they couldn’t transfer their computer files quickly.”
“But,” McInnis continued, “this can be replicated in any community…that’s what I tell people when they call and ask, ‘How’d you guys do that?’”