Imagine: no Netflix, no online banking, no Netflix, no Skyping or FaceTiming out-of-town family.

In some rural areas of the Columbia Basin, residents have had to learn to live without. Internet access is too slow, or too unreliable, or doesn’t exist at all.

For up to 11,000 of these households, this situation is about to change.

Columbia Basin Trust and 12 Internet service providers in the Basin have worked together to secure $3.34 million in federal funding from the Connecting Canadians program and nearly $2.3 million from the provincial Conecting British Columbia

Expanding our communities’ horizons

Tim Ryan needs reliable, high-speed Internet to do his job.

When he first moved to the village of Kaslo in 2001, there was very basic dial-up service. “If you’ve got small communities like Kaslo that are wonderful places to live but there is zero bandwidth, what possible hope do these places have to be able to participate in an electronic knowledge economy?” he asks.

“It’s economically strangling.”

Luckily for him, Kaslo InfoNet was able to turn that around. In 2006, the local Internet service provider was able to introduce high-speed service to a limited number of customers—including Ryan, who serves as a director on the non-profit’s Board.

Ryan now makes his living as a senior technology officer for an Edmonton-based photofinishing lab. The high-speed Internet “made it feasible for me to exist here.”

Strengthening our ISPs

Still, there are pockets of people around Kaslo who can’t access high-speed service—and many more in the Basin’s other rural areas. This is where the combined $5.64 million from the government fits in, along with additional funding from Internet service providers, regional districts and the Trust.

Internet service providers (ISPs) are the companies or non-profit organizations that sell Internet services to customers. They may be huge and nationwide (think Telus or Shaw) or serve a local area (like Kaslo InfoNet).

The 12 ISPs that decided to join forces with CBBC to apply to the program now have the funds to 1) introduce high-speed service (five megabits per second) to rural areas that never had it before and/or 2) improve the slow or unreliable service that already exists.

Columbia Wireless is a locally owned and operated ISP based out of Nelson. While it currently covers most of the West Kootenay, only a couple of the communities it services are able to receive high-speed access. Thanks to the funding, it is now improving service to all its existing customers by upgrading 18 of its 21 towers.

“The funding from this program is going to help our customers quite a bit with increasing service speed and improving reliability of service,” says chief executive officer Ben Leslie. “We had plans to upgrade our entire network anyway; however, funding the upgrades privately would have been a slow process over a few years.”

“Thanks to these programs, we plan to upgrade all existing towers this year and build the new expansion towers to our network next summer.”

Accessing the broadband backbone

The Trust also plays a role. In order to improve connectivity across the Basin, in 2011 it created a wholly owned subsidiary called the Columbia Basin Broadband Corporation (CBBC).

Since then, CBBC has been building a high-speed network in the Basin. This network is currently 724 kilometres long, stretching from the U.S. border near Waneta, up through Trail and Rossland, to Crawford Bay, over to Cranbrook, and as far north as Canal Flats and Elkford. CBBC’s priority has been activating this network, and most of it is now active, meaning information can pass through it.

The network is primarily made up of fibre optic cables, about the diameter of a quarter, slung over telephone poles. Although it passes a variety of rural communities, many of them can’t access this network without what’s called a “point of presence.”

Thanks to the federal funding, CBBC is now able to add or upgrade 23 “points of presence.” This involves installing equipment that will allow ISPs to connect to the network. ISPs can then relay the service to their customers—often using the towers and equipment the federal government’s funding is enabling them to build or upgrade.

“I think of our current network as a freeway or highway,” says CBBC chief operating officer Aimee Ambrosone. “The network has great capacity if you can connect to it. This project will let us put more on- and off-ramps onto that information freeway in rural locations.”

The end result of the work both CBBC and local ISPs are undertaking will be new or improved service to thousands of residents in communities across the Columbia Basin Boundary region. Finally, these people will find activities like online viewing, banking, chatting and working within reach.