Public Good Through Public Broadband: The City of Calgary’s Fibre Network
Author: Katelyn Maureen Anderson
Home university: Department of Communication, Media and Film, University of Calgary
Education level: Master of Arts - Communication and Media Studies
Abstract: The City of Calgary has built a municipal fibre broadband network over the past two decades, saving the City up to $20 million a year and providing increased choice for organizations and business within the community to access the internet. This research project considers Calgary’s broadband network as an example of an alternative to the dominant structure of private internet service delivery in Canada, while considering the public goods associated with the public network. Rather than rely on incumbent internet services providers, the City of Calgary operates its own broadband network to facilitate municipal service provision. In addition, the City leases excess capacity on its network, which provides benefits to the local telecommunications ecosystem while bringing in revenue for the municipality. Despite high-speed broadband access being named a basic service by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in late 2016 (CRTC, 2016), many Canadians remain cut off from the internet, unable to participate in the social, economic, and political facets of life that have increasingly moved online. As politicians, regulators, and citizens look for ways to bring about universal, high-quality, affordable internet service, I discuss a potential avenue to increasing access: public infrastructure. This case study investigates how the City of Calgary conceptualized, built, and operates the country’s largest municipal network.
Keywords: internet service; digital divides; alternative networks; municipal broadband; broadband infrastructure; City of Calgary
With the heralded arrival of 5G—the next generation of wireless technology that promises to connect consumer goods to the internet, everything from self-driving cars to refrigerators that can order their own milk—it can be easy to forget that many people lack even basic access to the internet. As of 2020 “half the world is not online” (UN Broadband Commission, 2020), meaning 3.6 billion people remain disconnected (International Telecommunications Union, 2020). In Canada, only 39% of rural residents have access to high-speed Internet, as opposed to 96% of their counterparts in urban centres (Auditor General of Canada, 2018). Yet the ‘digital divide’ is not only a problem of geography. Where physical infrastructure is in place barriers to access still exist, primarily through the high costs of service, impacting already marginalized communities (CRTC, 2020a). Both the geographic and affordability digital divides mean that while many Canadians have internalized constant connectivity, to the point where a ‘digital detox’ is a sign of affluence – there is “no disconnectivity without connectivity” (Hesselberth, 2018) – vulnerable communities are left struggling for basic connectivity. In the absence of access to affordable, reliable internet service many are cut off from the opportunities afforded by connection, and further penalized without the ability to manage obligations through online services, even as in person options disappear.
The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the effect of these digital divides as Canadians increasingly shift aspects of their lives online. While the sharp curtailing of the ability to interact ‘in real life’ was devastating to many, individuals and families without the internet have not been able to leverage what has been a lifeline for those with access. The digitally disconnected are liable to lose out on work and education responsibilities and opportunities, to have a harder time accessing health care and information, government, and social services, and are at increased risk of isolation as the internet has become the primary way to connect with friends, family, and peers during this unprecedented time. Being unable to access the internet can be debilitating to one’s economic, educational, social, and political life (Blanton, 2013; Haight et al., 2014).
This research explores a route to bridging digital divides: Municipalities that build and operate their own internet infrastructure. I focus on an alternative model of internet service in one of Canada’s largest urban centres, the City of Calgary. A renewed interest in the role local governments can play in delivering universal service is evidenced by the City of Toronto’s ConnectTO project, approved by their city council in February 2021. The network “will help ensure Torontonians are not being left behind because of the high price of reliable internet service … Bridging this growing digital divide supports Toronto’s most vulnerable and marginalized residents in accessing vital services and resources” (City of Toronto, 2021). Toronto’s decision to expand its internal network, and to offer service wholesale, echoes the municipal fibre network that the City of Calgary has built over the last two decades, which is the topic of this paper. The stated motive by Toronto city councillors to build a municipal network in order to increase internet access within the municipality provides a compelling context to look at what has been done in Calgary, and how the Albertan network may potentially be used in the future.
Scholarship on Municipal Broadband
Much of the current scholarship on municipal broadband highlights the social and economic goods afforded to communities that have high-speed, reliable, affordable access. Universal access to the internet is near-globally viewed as critical civic infrastructure, and an increasing number of municipalities are showing that it is both possible and profitable to deploy telecommunications infrastructure as a utility. To ensure universal access, some communities have not been content to wait for existing privatized internet service providers to come to the rescue and have looked to public models. Communities wanting to build a public network often utilize a public good framework, arguing that high-speed, affordable broadband should be considered a basic utility (McLeod, 2020; Liem, 2014). Municipalities that have been successful in setting up and operating broadband networks point to the positive impact on the economy, as well as improvements in education, health care delivery and local community-building (Crawford & Mohr, 2013; Lobo, 2015; Talbot, 2017). Municipal networks pose a direct challenge to the existing for-profit model, which is dominated by a handful of incumbent telecommunications providers in most areas. Because municipalities already deploy and operate large infrastructure projects, including storm and wastewater utilities, electrical grids, transit systems and roads, they are well positioned to leverage both their experience and existing infrastructure to build out and operate telecommunications networks (Sadowski et al., 2009). Urban governments are in a unique position to benefit greatly from economies of scope by becoming further vertically integrated, leveraging their fixed overhead costs to build out broadband infrastructure. For private network operators to build out facilities they must have large amounts of capital, and the ability to take on risk, for the substantial sunk and fixed costs that municipalities already bear, and which acts as a barrier to entry for smaller providers as well as incumbents looking to expand or upgrade their network.
While people living within rural areas are more likely to be on the wrong side of the geographical digital divide, affordability has been a major obstacle to access even where infrastructure is technically available Blanton, 2013; Haight et al., 2014). Discourse on universal access has tended to focus on the ‘last mile,’ with regulators assuming that “broadband connectivity problems are primarily a rural concern as ‘market forces’ should be sufficient to deliver services of sufficient quality in urban areas. However, even in large cities with low costs and high income, incentives of providers to invest in capacity enhancements and scalable fiber networks can be limited” (Rajabiun & McKelvey, 2019). Despite having higher densities, often thought to go hand in hand with broadband penetration, residents within inner-city areas (Koch, 2018), or urban residents in lower income brackets (CRTC, 2019), face broadband access inequalities. Those that are on the lowest income brackets tend to spend a higher percentage of their income on broadband services (Hudson, 2010; Gonzales, 2016; CRTC, 2019).
Much of the current literature focuses on case studies of municipalities that have built their own broadband or Wi-Fi networks (Crawford & Mohr, 2013; Hudson, 2010; Morisson & Bevilacqua, 2018; Middleton & Crow, 2008; Sadowski et al., 2009). The City of Chattanooga, a mid-sized city in Tennessee, was the first internet service provider in the country to launch a gigabyte per second residential network when it launched in 2010 (Morisson & Bevilacqua, 2018). The infrastructure, run by the municipal electric provider, has been credited with injecting life into the community, creating a booming knowledge economy (Wyatt, 2014; Rushe, 2014), large increase in population (United States Census Bureau, 2020) and economic growth (Pare, 2018). In many of the American communities that have been successful setting up and operating municipal networks, a near-ubiquitous characteristic is that the initiative was led by an existing public power utility (Mitchell, 2012). Municipalities are able to “take advantage of scale and scope economies achieved internally by linking different locations of semi-public institutions and required only incremental investments to expand service provision externally” (Sadowski et al., 2009). Municipalities can leverage their experience operating large-scale infrastructure projects in a way that other would-be challengers to incumbent telecommunications providers are not able to. In addition, much of the necessary fixed costs inherent in providing civic services, as well as existing rights-of-way, can be leveraged to facilitate cost savings that cannot be matched by private corporations (Bar & Park, 2006; Koch, 2018).
For this research project I chose to do a qualitative analysis, specifically a non-experimental case study. While case studies cannot offer direct cause and effect relationships, they do allow for a detailed understanding of specific events or projects (Seale, 2012). As a framework to explore my central research questions, ‘Is Calgary’s broadband network a feasible alternative to the dominant structure of private internet service provision?’ and ‘What public good, if any, is brought about by the public network?’ I centred a few broad themes to analyze the interview and primary documents: How the network was imagined/created; problems of existing framework; state support/ usage of existing public infrastructure or funds; knowledge sharing between communities; and the usage/impact of the network.
To begin, I looked to primary documents to inform this research, including marketing information, meeting minutes, and policy documents from the municipality, as well as supplemental provincial and federal information. The largest primary source of information considered for this project was the City of Calgary’s Fibre Infrastructure Strategy. The strategy clearly outlines the state of city-owned fibre infrastructure, includes detailed analysis about how and why municipalities have a role in telecommunications infrastructure and policy, and makes recommendations for the City to adopt. To supplement research gathered from primary documents, I also conducted a semi-structured interview with a key figure in the creation and continued operation of the municipal infrastructure over the past two decades, the City of Calgary’s lead fibre optic planner. Interviews are an opportunity to gain insight into the attitudes, behaviour, opinions, feelings, and knowledge from those involved (Wengraf, 2001). While their insights were greatly beneficial and led to some unexpected findings, this study is limited in scope by only drawing from the experiences of one interviewee. An expanded research project would benefit from engaging with community members, to gain an understanding of how the infrastructure is used both within the municipality and among the wider community, and to assess the impact it has on citizens.
Case study: City of Calgary Network
The City of Calgary offers a compelling case study both because of the existing telecommunications infrastructure and the municipality’s regulatory advocacy at the national and provincial levels around the increasing overlap of telecommunications and municipal infrastructure. While some rural network builders speak to being motivated by a lack of affordable, high-quality service options (McLeod, 2020; Liem, 2014), there is less focus on the desire to control their own infrastructure and data (Valleau, 2019; Internet Society, 2020), or being inspired to decentralize the web (NYC Mesh, 2020). Case studies of urban networks, like the City of Calgary’s, shed light on affordability, control of infrastructure, and jurisdictional tension between federal policy and local realities.
Nationwide, Canadians within the bottom 20% of incomes spend nearly 10% of their earnings on communications services (CRTC, 2019a). While Calgary-specific communications spending data is not available, as of January 2020, the municipality had the third-highest unemployment rate among Canadian cities, a number that has improved from the second highest in 2018, and the highest in 2017 and 2016 (Statistics Canada, 2020), as the city struggles to recover from a provincial recession which began in 2014 (Lucas & Tombe, 2019). According to non-profit Vibrant Communities Calgary more than 120,000 Calgarians are living in poverty (2019). Already marginalized groups are overrepresented in poverty demographics within the city, including those who self identify as immigrants, females, single-family households, senior citizens, those living with disabilities and aboriginals (Eremenko, 2018). A further challenge to affordability within the city is that, according to the CRTC, urban Albertans spend more money on communication services than their counterparts across the country (2019a, infographic 1.6).
The City of Calgary is pushing the boundaries of the role urban municipalities can play in the realm of telecommunications infrastructure, primarily through building their own fibre optic network. The scope of the municipal corporation’s service delivery is wide-ranging, and includes managing Calgary’s water supply, controlling traffic lights and train schedules, providing emergency response services including police and fire, and assessing and collecting property taxes, all of which come with substantial connectivity needs. While cities may have some of their own telecommunications infrastructure, the majority of municipalities primarily rely on leasing service from large scale internet service providers to provide city services and support their operations. By owning and operating their own fibre network, Calgary acts as its own service provider, which saves costs and streamlines operations. In addition to internal use, Calgary leverages additional network capacity, or ‘dark fibre,’ not being used by the City to third parties, including businesses, civic partners, and non-profits (City of Calgary, 2020b). This wholesale access is available to organizations with equipment and expertise to use fibre infrastructure, as opposed to paying for the City to provide service—the City is leasing strands of fibre, rather than acting as an internet service provider.
Beginnings of the Network
The City’s first fibre build was done by the Water Services business unit in the late 1990s. Rather than envisioning an overarching network, or inspired by visions of serving the public, the build was in response to the unit’s own needs. This type of approach to using bits of fibre for specific purposes is common among Canadian cities. The City’s experience with municipally-owned and -operated infrastructure is also tied in to another utility: Electricity. Alberta’s energy market “is unusual within Canada, having a competitive electricity market dominated by a mix of investor-owned and municipally-owned utilities,” including Enmax (Hale and Bartlett, 2019, p. 264). While the nuances of Alberta’s history of energy regulation is beyond the scope of this paper, it is enough to note that the during a wave of deregulation in the province in the mid-1990s, Alberta’s electric utilities industry underwent a major restructuring in an attempt to aggressively cut costs and streamline administration (Low, 2009), which resulted in the creation of Enmax, which has implications for the city’s fiber infrastructure. In 1995, the “Electric Utilities Act created an open-access, competitive power pool to trade electricity as a commodity [allowing Albertans] … to have a choice of who they purchased their electricity from” (Enmax, 2020). Calgary City Council soon after approved the creation of Enmax, a wholly owned subsidiary of the municipality (City of Calgary, 2015a; Enmax, 2020). When Enmax was formed in January 1998 the City’s fiber optic assets were transferred to the new company for $750,000 (City of Calgary, 2015a). As part of the deal, the Fibre Optics Agreement with Respect to Ownership and Rights of Use, the City was guaranteed access at no cost until 2003, after which Enmax would lease the fibre back to the City at a “fair market rate” (City of Calgary, 2015a, p. 7). Enmax’s communications division, which operated that fibre, was called Envision. The provider did not offer residential service, instead it sold connectivity directly to businesses, offering high-speed intranets, virtual private networks, and interact services. Envision, still a City-owned subsidiary, was sold to Shaw in 2013.
In 2002, a steering committee was formed that laid the groundwork for Calgary’s current fibre network (Basto, 2020). The Fibre Cable Duct and Wireless (FCDW) steering committee was created to “to provide stewardship for The City’s immediate and long-term fibre infrastructure needs in a co-ordinated way” (City of Calgary, 2015a, p 7). The committee was a partial response to the feeling that the City was paying too much for fiber, and the idea of imagining a municipal network took hold (Basto, 2020). In a 2015 document that outlines the current strategy for Calgary’s fibre infrastructure, the committee’s initial creation was described as a “bold move in the presence of Enmax Envision” (p. 8) which was also continuing to build fibre across the city. However, “the strategy was soon validated as demands for fibre increased shortly after and the cost avoidance was considerable” (2015a, p. 8). The committee included the directors from “Transit, Roads, Transportation Infrastructure, Water Services, and Information Technology” (City of Calgary, 2015a, p. 7), as well as David Basto who would quickly become the City’s Lead Fibre Optic Planner, a role he continues to hold. I interviewed Basto for this research project in October 2020. Basto credits then-Transit director John Hubbell with having the vision, likening the creation of a telecommunications network to existing networks: “Fibre optics are like transportation infrastructure, but for information” (2020). To fund the project initially, the committee had the $750,000 from the sale of City fiber to Enmax, which would be used “to start the City’s own fibre optic plant” (City of Calgary, 2015a, p. 8). In a January 2003 meeting notes document from the committee (their fourth meeting, the earliest I was able to find with the help of Basto) the committee discusses “planning for replacement of all fibre leased from Enmax (2003, para 14.1), were creating a map for “future fibre optic needs of the city business units” (2003) and discussing a name and logo for the “community network” (2003, para 14.5, 14.6). By 2005 a fibre team of about 10 people began planning a reimaged network. After five years, in 2010, work on building the network began.
The Alberta Advantage?
With the emergence of the internet into homes in the 1990s, the federal government grappled with how best to benefit from the explosion of the world wide web, launching multiple federal-led inquiries including the Information Highway Advisory Council in the mid 1990s and the National Broadband Task Force in 2001 (Government of Canada, 2004; Mitchell, 2003; National Broadband Task Force, 2001). Albertans, however, were not content to wait for federal action, and in 2000 the province announced it would build the SuperNet, a provincial fibre-optic internet backbone that would be open access (Government of Alberta, n.d.; Kozak, 2014). When finished in 2005, the SuperNet included points of presence into 429 communities, including 4,200 schools, libraries, hospitals, and government offices (Taylor Warwick Consulting Limited, 2016). What the SuperNet did not do was extend from the main point in the community, to each home. That so-called ‘last mile’ was to be built by private internet service providers, or the communities themselves. This last step commercial model allowed for competition of different carriers—a marketplace solution which was thought by many to be a benefit. As a public-private partnership, the internet backbone was owned by the province, but run by private companies (Service Alberta, 2020). As the only provincial internet backbone in Canada, one might expect to find lower prices for landline internet in Alberta, however, service remains on par, or more expensive, than in comparable jurisdictions (CRTC, 2019a). Penetration rates in the province are also on par with other provinces (CRTC, 2019a), and speed measurement data shows the province is lagging other provinces which show higher levels of competition in the broadband sector (Rajabiun & McKelvey 2019; CRTC, 2019a).
SuperNet In the City
Despite the City of Calgary being in the unique position as one of two major urban centres able to take advantage of provincial internet transit infrastructure, the SuperNet does not play a role in the City’s network and never has (Basto, 2020). During the mid-2000s there was a debate about if and how the city would implement the SuperNet to deliver services or if they would build their own. Part of the uncertainty of relying on the SuperNet for municipal operations included unknowns about the type of network it would be and how it would perform – especially when considering utilizing it in mission critical operations such as the City’s light-rail transit network – as well as how service level agreements (SLAs) would work in general (Basto, 2020). Overall, while the SuperNet was a “great vision” and had positive impact for connectivity for educational institutions, it was a “disaster from an investment perspective,” says Basto (2020). The Alberta Government invested a substantial amount the SuperNet but gave up the majority of ownership rights to the infrastructure in subsequent operating contracts. As a result, to use the network now the province is “paying huge amounts for it – for something they already paid for” (Basto, 2020). That is a marked difference from the City of Calgary’s strategy: A core principle of the network from the start was that the early investments would pay for themselves over time, allowing the City to never have to buy their own fibre again (Basto, 2020). Ownership of the network has been central to Calgary’s strategy: “If you are going to control your network, you should own your network” (Basto, 2020). The ownership lesson is one Calgary has experience with, with the sale of municipal fibre assets to Envision in the late 1990s, which resulted in, among other things, the municipality losing legacy fibre leasing options.
In the spring of 2013 Calgary was hit with a “100-year flood” forcing evacuations of nearly one tenth of residents from their homes (IBI Group, 2015). As the waters rose parts of the City’s internal network started to go down as equipment was damaged, and it became clear the entire network would soon go offline (Basto, 2020). The fiber team had been building a parallel network they had been planning for years and were in the last stages. They had just implemented all the network hardware, and were about to enter the testing phase, which they had planned would take six months. “And then the flood happened” (Basto, 2020). That night, faced with rising waters, a downed network, and little other options they decided to migrate to the untested network. Though the city had been planning the reimaging a new network since 2005 and began its construction in 2010 (Basto, 2020), they had not been planning on deploying the network so soon. But faced with the natural disaster, making the switch to the fledgling parallel network provided a high-risk, high-reward option that managed to lessen some of the impacts of the flood on city infrastructure by restoring service to some essential municipal services. Because the City owned the infrastructure, they had the flexibility to configure their networks and bring them back online quickly, something an incumbent network would not have been able to do (Basto, 2020). A major benefit of municipally owned fiber infrastructure is the flexibility allowed, aiding in quick response times to keep emergency networks operational during a disaster.
The deployment of the re-designed network in 2013, included MPLS rings, or multiprotocol label switching, which adds redundancy. In the case of one site going down, such as the City experienced during the 2013 flood, the network can continue operating. Whereas the City’s old network had one core located in City Hall, which was hit by the flood, the new network has multiple rings with cores in different sites (Basto, 2020). By having an overarching framework for the City’s network, they can efficiently manage efficiencies within the system.
|1997||City builds its first fiber infrastructure. The Water Services business units build an internal network.|
|1998||Enmax Corporation, an electricity utility, is established as a subsidiary of the City of Calgary. The newly formed entity purchases existing city fibre, leading to the creation of Envision, the utilities’ communication arm.|
|2001||City administration, led by the then-Calgary Transit director, form a steering committee to discuss municipal fiber infrastructure. The leadership is apt: “Fibre optics are like transportation infrastructure, but for information” (Basto 2020).|
|2001 - Present||Leverage Capital Projects to construct fibre infrastructure, beginning with the deployment of fibre along the light-rail transit line in 2001.|
|2010||Construction begins on Calgary City Net (CCN), the reimagined network.|
|2013||The City deploys the reimagined network. The resilient multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) architecture features multiple redundancies to guard against disruption of critical municipal services.|
|2013||The City-owned but wholly subsidiary fibre operator Envision is sold to Shaw. The deal ends the City’s opportunities for leasing fibre from Envision/SHAW. The City begins planning additional fibre builds to any city sites still reliant on Envision/SHAW fibre. By this time less than 2% of City facilities were still reliant on Envision/Shaw fibre.|
|2014||‘Launch’ of the wholesale network. The City leases excess capacity on their fibre network to an organization outside the city for the first time.|
|2015||The Fibre Infrastructure Strategy, the framework for the growth and operation of the City’s fibre infrastructure is approved by council. Significantly, it comes with funding: An $18 million injection in capital funds over three years, 2015-2018. The foundational document guides decision making to date, with updates delivered annually.|
|2018||Despite the success of the project to date, city-wide budget cuts result in a dramatic decrease in the fiber team’s capital budget over the following three years, 2019-2022. While funding is initially earmarked at $4 million for the period, it is revised to $8 million.|
|2019||Revenues earned from leasing excess capacity hits $1 million, far above expectations set out in 2015.|
|2020||The project’s cost savings reach $20 million a year. The number is calculated using the fibre the City uses based on the rates it used to pay Enmax.|
Source: Basto, 2020; City of Calgary, 2015, 2018, 2020b.
The City of Calgary’s extensive fibre-optic network connects the municipality’s different business units, networks together city-owned office buildings, services the traffic lights grid, and provides internet access to the police for traditional service, as well as newer applications like the streaming of body camera footage (City of Calgary, 2020b). Internally, the municipality uses the fibre infrastructure to deploy 24 different networks including “mission critical networks like 911, Water Services SCADA [supervisory control and data acquisition], Intelligent Transportation Systems to the essential corporate network which transports all City applications, email, shared drives, and internet traffic” (City of Calgary, 2015a). These networks are wide-ranging, the network that manages clean drinking water for the city has different requirements than the one that the Light Rail Transit system relies on to operate (City of Calgary, 2020b). Calgary City Net is “the City’s largest, most resilient network which provides high bandwidth, redundancy and security for business units” (City of Calgary, 2020b, p. 4). By the end of 2019, the network serviced nearly 700 facilities and assets (City of Calgary, 2020b), including traffic lights, transit controllers, and remote offices.
Calgary’s Wholesale Dark Fibre Network
The City of Calgary leases space on their fibre network (City of Calgary, 2020a). Using a wholesale model, the City does not provide internet service itself, but sells fibre to organizations with the technical know how and equipment who can utilize city fibre to gain access to the internet or for their own internal networks. Of the city’s active fibre strands, about one tenth is leased to third parties (Basto, 2020). In the process of deploying their fibre transport network for municipal services, the City capitalized on the opportunity to install excess capacity, which is relatively inexpensive to do. This ‘dark fibre’—as data is transmitted over fibre-optic cables through light waves, unused fibre is dark—is then available to be leased (City of Calgary, 2020a). Organizations including the Calgary Public Library, the University of Calgary, and Cybera, Alberta’s research and education network, as well as school boards, health-care providers, commercial business tenants, and even existing internet service providers utilize the City’s facilities. There is no discrimination based on who uses the network, or for what purposes (City of Calgary, 2020a). Presently, the stated goal is to connect all communities in Calgary, although there are no plans to become a service provider, or build fibre to the premises. Even without the provision of retail services, there is a large market for wholesale customers. By making available affordable wholesale fibre, the City can bolster the economy by supporting local businesses while “recoup[ing] initial investments for construction and installation” (City of Calgary 2015a, p. 13).
While the sale of dark fibre is not regulated, the municipality decided to register with the CRTC as a non-dominant carrier (City of Calgary, 2015a, 2015b). This classifies the municipality as a facilities-based provider, while having different regulatory obligations than dominant internet service providers classified as, for example, an incumbent local exchange carrier. One way the City of Calgary sees a role for municipalities is in offering wholesale, open access to their network at fair rates, while advocating that they be forborne from the same level of regulation as their private counterparts (City of Calgary, 2015b). The argument being that municipalities’ primary role is to provide municipal services, while building out a network is a positive externality and as such government, or non-dominant, broadband wholesalers are penalized when they are subject to regulations designed for incumbent telecommunications companies. The non-dominant carrier classification adds weight to the City’s engagement with telecommunications infrastructure policy at the federal level. The municipality participated in the national regulator’s hearing on the review of wholesale services and associated policies, challenging policy at the provincial and federal levels (Bendfeld, 2014; CRTC, 2014; City of Calgary, 2015b), and submitted recommendations on the future of Canadian communications legislation (City of Calgary, 2019a), one of the only municipalities to do so (Government of Canada, 2019). A main theme in their advocacy, according to City of Calgary representatives, is to bring to the table “policies that are not just market led but have a perspective of public good” (Basto, 2020) and to advocate for telecommunications policy that considers the unique needs and jurisdictional issues of municipalities.
City Hall’s Fibre Infrastructure Policy
In September 2015, City Council unanimously approved the Fibre Infrastructure Strategy, a document that has guided all successive City policy for the network. An update to the strategy is presented to Council annually to approve, but the principles of the 2015 overarching strategy document are intact. The document outlined four main challenges to address: Manage City rights-of-way, increase cost efficiencies, protect the City’s right to self-provision of services and to address inevitable community inequities (City of Calgary, 2015a). By the time the 2015 strategy was written, the City’s ‘ad-hoc’ approach had already resulted in 450 kilometres City-owned fibre, and network traffic was doubling every two years (City of Calgary, 2015a).
As both municipal ledgers and policy submissions assert, “it is a cost effective and efficient for municipalities to construct fibre transport facilities at the same time that municipalities carry out large infrastructure projects, such as road work or the construction of transit facilities” (City of Calgary, 2015a, p. 11). The cost of laying fiber is 80-85% “putting conduit in the ground” (City of Calgary, 2016), installing fibre optic cable costs about $200 per metre when roads have to be dug up, while by installing fibre into an existing conduit “costs drop dramatically to $11 per metre, as the incumbent pays only for the fibre optic cable and the costs of the installation of the fibre optic cable into existing conduit” (City of Calgary, 2015b).
Although the program has been measurably successful, pulling in revenues for the City, and identifying key growth areas such as implementation of “5G/small cell [technology] and possible collaboration with Enmax for automated meter reading” (City of Calgary, 2018a), the Fibre Infrastructure Team’s capital budget was cut from $4 million a year to $1 million in the city’s 2019-2022 plan (City of Calgary, 2019b). Calgary’s dark fiber network has been advanced by City officials who do not want to have streets continually dug up, but it also serves to work towards getting closer to universal access goals by creating more opportunities for competition in Canada’s telecommunications market through having additional infrastructure available. Foundational wireline infrastructure available will also be important for cities looking to take advantage of the possibilities of 5G. While 5G proponents tout the benefits of next generation of wireless will bring, its implementation depends on existing wireline technology, it is “a compliment to fiber, not a substitute for it” (Crawford, 2018, p. 29).
Benefit to Citizens
The benefits of a municipal network may often be invisible in the day to day lives of Calgarians by making essential services more reliable or through lower costs to the City. One use case for City fibre, and the option not to lease fibre from third parties, is the cost savings to the Calgary Police Service. As body cameras become more prevalent, there is a cost associated in transporting live video footage to a location where it can be stored. Other Albertan police forces using body cameras and leasing fibre, like the City of Edmonton, have seen data usage costs skyrocket, while the City of Calgary has benefitted by the bandwidth provided by the municipal network (Basto, 2020). The same advantage is seen by other City networks that rely on transmitting live video footage, including Calgary Transit in their use of transit cameras.
The resiliency of mission critical networks impacts all residents. Before the 2013 flood and the launch of the City’s redesigned multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) network, a 2012 electrical fire at Shaw Communication’s headquarters disrupted 911 service for downtown residents, including taking much of the City of Calgary’s phone system and service for some fire stations offline (Massinon et. al, 2012). Because some City services rely on using fibre infrastructure and can impact life safety, the City’s network was built to have redundant routes, increasing reliability for mission critical services (City of Calgary, 2015a). While not at the same level as deploying 911 services, the City’s traffic flows are also improved by the resiliency of the municipal network. The Roads department uses fibre to “monitor and control traffic signals remotely” and the reliability of the network used creates a better experience for Calgarians (City of Calgary, 2020, p. 4). The City reports that in “2015, the network was only up 65% of the time – but now that a significant portion is on fibre optics, the network is up 98% of the time. City fibre reaches over 340 traffic controllers, resulting in an increase of service uptime by 50%” (City of Calgary, 2020, p. 4). In addition to the benefits to City services both in terms of being able to deliver higher-quality, more reliable services, as well as the long-term cost savings, the City claims the network will “preserve City assets and infrastructure and can contribute to a thriving private sector telecommunications industry” (City of Calgary, 2015a, p. 8). The more fibre the City has available to lease, the more options there are for incumbents and small providers alike to connect assets and citizens.
The network also has a positive impact on the City’s budget, a direct benefit to taxpayers. When the City approved the Fibre Infrastructure Strategy, cost avoidance was expected to hit $1.2 million per year as “connectivity and bandwidth increases” (City of Calgary, 2015a). As the City uses increasingly more data, as it is expected to continue to do, those cost savings go up. According to the City’s lead fibre optics planner, “before we built our own fibre we used to licence it from Enmax at a rate of $2.50 per strand per year. If we took all the fibre we used today and applied that rate then we come to approximately $20 million per year” in cost avoidance (Basto, 2020). The benefits to the municipality’s bottom line impacts not only what they have saved by implementing the network, but by acting as a non-dominant provider and leasing out excess capacity, they have also created a new revenue stream. In 2019, they reached the milestone of $1 million in revenue, “which represents a 180% increase from 2015 revenues and is well above the $180,000 originally projected” in the 2015 Fibre Infrastructure Strategy (City of Calgary, 2020b, p. 7).
Three decades after the birth of the world wide web, 15 years after Canada’s National Broadband Task Force’s deadline for universal service (NBTF, 2001), and amid a global pandemic, it is hard to deny that high-speed, affordable internet service is essential to participate fully in social, political, and economic life. The internet is foundational infrastructure that impacts our livelihoods, emotional wellbeing, and ability to engage within our communities. City of Calgary decision makers and employees who constructed the network saw a community that was not being served adequately by the existing economic and political frameworks and imagined a way to intervene that worked in service of the public interest. The case study of Calgary’s wholesale network embodies a critical gaze towards widely accepted communication myths, specifically that market forces are the best, and only, way to close existing digital divides. This research on the City of Calgary’s fibre network can serve as a framework for Canadian cities that are considering growing their own broadband infrastructure, and to spur imaginations about the role cities have in creating and enacting telecommunications policy, including by building citizen-owned communications infrastructure.
In the context of the recently announced ConnectTO, the municipally owned network proposed by the City of Toronto, analyzing the structure, uses, and benefits of Calgary’s existing fibre network becomes even more relevant. The City of Toronto’s plan will utilize the same structure as the City of Calgary’s current fibre network, which connects municipal business units, and offers wholesale access to business and service providers. According to the City of Toronto, the municipality will sell access wholesale “to qualified service providers, at a fair price, to generate revenue, which will be re-invested back into communities to expand access to internet service and help lower costs” (City of Toronto, 2021). Toronto’s stated goal of using municipal infrastructure to bridge digital divides goes a step further than what Calgary has done and has the potential to offer a clear path for how both cities, and other Canadian municipalities, can play a role in providing high-quality affordable internet access to all citizens.
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