Several months ago any municipal politician or local public servant would have said that you are dreaming in Technicolor if you even hinted that you wanted access to fiber optics. Even recently, « Unthinkable ! » is all you’d hear if you mentioned wanting fiber optic internet for the home. Today it’s safe to say that against all odds, a fiber optic network will soon cover the entire region. How to explain this total reversal ? How is it possible that what was unthinkable yesterday is about to happen ?
It’s simple. We were wrong to believe that installing a comprehensive fiber optic network in our region was unthinkable. We were led to this conclusion for a long time and we were naive.
Personally, I believed Bell Canada and its cohorts when they told us for the last 20 years that fiber optic cables were on the verge of being installed in the region ; I believed it yet again when they started to explain that it wasn’t profitable to deploy fiber optic cables in the country and that we would have to be satisfied with services that were either slower or more expensive (sometimes both). And like a fool I have payed for obsolete phone lines, for a dish that works intermittently, for an antenna, for a signal booster and a slew of other gadgets that don’t even get me a 5 Mb/sec connection, the minimum prescribed by the « competent authorities ».
In the winter of 2016 I finally woke up when a remarkable young man named Étienne Gingras explained to me that the big internet service providers (ISPs) had no intention of installing a fiber optic network in a region where they already sold internet access using obsolete phone lines and wireless technology at premium prices. Their terms sought to enriched their shareholders rather than satisfy their clients.
Étienne taught me that when a rural area has a good fiber-optic network it is not thanks to big ISP’s but due to cooperatives or non-profit organizations initiated by citizen action gaining the support of a municipality or group of municipalities.
Cooperatives and non-profits don’t have shareholders, they have members. Shareholders of companies seek personal profit, while members of a cooperative seek to satisfy a collective need. In our case, the shareholders have no interest in projects that won’t generate bloated short-term profits ; on the other hand, the members are ready to assume a long-term debt to offer an essential service. The former want to become or remain millionaires ; the latter seek to live comfortably. It’s not surprising that the shareholders decided that building fiber optic networks won’t line their pockets because it’s true. The members of a coop or non-profit know equally well that fiber optics will improve the life of the community.
A little history
In spring 2016 Étienne Gingras created a Facebook page to publicize what he learned over the winter. In an interview with Le Saint-Armand, he proposed forming a group of citizens to study the possibilities. On June 21, about 30 people met in Saint Armand and decided to reactivate the Société de développement de Saint-Armand, a non-profit that had become inactive. An administrative council (AC) of five members was established with a mandate to explore different models for financing the installation of a fiber optic network in Saint Armand.
François Boulianne, the president of the AC, explains : « … the group resolved to assume a leadership role in a project to install a fiber optic network in poorly served areas of Brome-Missisquoi. » We asked him why they didn’t restrict their scope to Saint-Armand. « Because citizens of municipalities other than Saint-Armand came to the June 21 public assembly and others contacted us through Étienne’s Facebook page. Someone from Dunham is even on our AC. They let us know that the need is just as urgent in other municipalities of the MRC. Also, MP Denis Paradis, a citizen of Saint Armand, let us know that to benefit from a promised subsidy from the federal government to wire the countryside, it would be better to submit a proposal that covers the entire riding he represents in Ottawa. A phone call to the director general of the MRC let us know that the authorities in Brome-Missisquoi would see this as a worthwhile initiative. »
The AC members also met with the Conseil de développement régional du Québec (Quebec Regional Development Council) , with Coop CSUR (an ISP in the region of Très-Saint-Rédempteur), and with Internet Haut-Richelieu (IHR, a non-profit ISP from the neighboring Haut-Richelieu), the mayor of Saint Armand and his Municipal Council, and representatives of the Brome-Missisquoi MRC. The mayor of Saint-Armand and the members of the Société de développement de Saint-Armand also met with representatives of the program « Connect to Innovate » in Ottawa and in Saint-Armand to ensure that rural regions like Armandie satisfy program requirements.
It rapidly became apparent to the AC members that IHR was best prepared to respond to the need : its directors have the technical and administrative expertise ; they already offer telephone, television, and internet service on their nearby network and installations to allow for a rapid development of the project. On September 12, 2016 Saint Armand became the first municipality to adopt a motion supporting IHR. In early 2017, Dunham, Notre-Dame-de-Stanbridge, and Stanbridge Station also showed an interest in IHR followed by the MRC. At press time, they appeared to support the initiatives of several other municipalities.
Recall that the federal government launched it’s « Connect to Innovate » program in December 2016. A few days later Quebec announced it’s own program that will be harmonized with the federal program. To support a request for a subsidy to bring fiber optic internet service to the home, the Société de développement de Saint-Armand and IHR installed equipment in 20 Saint Armand and 30 Dunham residences to measure connection speeds of receivers several times a day over 10 days. The results showed that these locations would qualify for a project to bring fiber optics to their doorstep. In February and March 2017, public assemblies were organized by IHR in Saint Armand, Notre-Dame-de-Stanbridge, Stanbridge-Station and Dunham. Citizens turned out in large numbers, showing a strong interest in this initiative.
At press time, IHR is preparing to submit a request for federal and provincial program funding. Government agencies will announce their decisions at the end of the summer. The Société de développement de Saint-Armand will inform you of the results once they are known. If all goes according to plan, Saint-Armand should have fiber optic service by 2018.
If all this materializes, we owe Étienne Gingras and those who believe in this project a debt of gratitude for moving it forward. They’ve taught us a valuable lesson : What seems impossible may very well be within reach.