One of Canada's major rural Internet providers is detailing a three-year road map for the delivery of broadband speeds that might seem like fantasy to some residents of remote communities and even those just outside urban centres.
Xplornet Communications Inc. plans to deliver broadband Internet service with download speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) to 100 per cent of rural Canadians by July 2017.
The Woodstock, N.B.-based company, which sells Internet to close to 250,000 households in rural and northern communities, said it can deliver the high-speed service using a combination of capacity it recently purchased on two new satellites as well as an extension of its on-the-ground network of towers.
Xplornet president Allison Lenehan said in an interview he believes his company's plans are "unprecedented," adding, "I know there will be some skepticism."
While Xplornet is plotting its path to speeds of 25 Mbps, the federal government has committed $305-million over five years to extend services of at least 5 Mbps to 98 per cent of Canadians. Ottawa announced that plan in the federal budget earlier this year and last week said it will begin mapping current coverage this summer and take applications for eligible projects starting in the fall.
Although most urban Internet packages now start at speeds of 10 Mbps and Google Inc.'s Fiber dazzles some U.S. cities with 1 gigabits per second service, the speeds available to many rural Canadians don't even top 1.5 Mbps.
To put that in context, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission says you need average download speeds of almost 6 Mbps to stream Netflix Inc. content in high-definition and more than 2 Mbps for mid-range quality.
While Internet providers can claim to serve 100 per cent of Canada's vastly spread out population by virtue of reliance on satellite technology, those services are expensive and the cost tends to put truly high speeds out of reach. Mobile Internet access is also widely available, but those living in remote areas typically have not had access to the speeds available in cities through wired services such as cable, DSL and fibre offered by the country's biggest telecom companies.
For example, in 2012, only 29 per cent of households in Nunavut had access to broadband speeds of between 5 Mbps and 10 Mbps and nothing faster than that, according to the most recent data available from the CRTC.
That same year, only 85 per cent of rural households had access to residential broadband, not including satellite services.
"I think the experience is that connectivity really is lacking in a lot of rural areas or 'ex-urban' areas just outside of urban corridors," said Geoff White, counsel with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, a non-profit consumer advocacy group based in Ottawa. "That's because the economics of deploying the infrastructure needed to provide the level of connectivity that most urban Canadians take for granted are more challenging."
While he lauds the federal government's funding program, which follows a similar three-year, $225-million initiative that concluded in 2012, Mr. White said he worries it is not a sustainable way to ensure adequate Internet services exist in remote areas.
"The challenge in the North, continues to be the small population density over a very broad areas," said Paul Bush, senior vice-president of corporate and business development at Telesat Holdings Inc., a satellite communications company that sells capacity on a wholesale basis to both international and Canadian satellite television and Internet service providers including Xplornet.
Some of the "small" communities Telesat serves in Columbia and Brazil have populations of 50,000 to 60,000 people while in the Canadian North, a relatively large community such as Iqaluit, Nunavut, has less than 10,000 residents, he noted.
However, Mr. Bush said that over the past four to five years, satellites have become bigger and more powerful, making the price per unit more affordable, and the technology behind the electronics on the ground that access satellite signals has also improved.
Xplornet said in May it purchased Canadian capacity on two next-generation satellites that will launch in mid-2016. In addition to three satellites it presently uses, it has committed up to $275-million for capacity on ViaSat Inc.'s ViaSat-2 satellite and about $200-million for Canadian broadband capacity on Hughes Network Systems LLC's Echostar XIX satellite.
The company said it is also upgrading its "fixed-wireless" network of about 1,000 towers to offer LTE – long-term evolution or fourth-generation – data services and will begin making that available to customers starting this fall. Fixed wireless service uses towers and spectrum – the radio waves used to carry telecommunications signals – to deliver high-speed Internet in areas not reached by wired services.
"We've got affordability figured out, we just need to give people more value for that price," said Mr. Lenehan.
The company has not yet announced packages or pricing for the enhanced speeds, which it says will also include better upload speeds. Mr. Lenehan said the aim is to eventually make download speeds of 25 Mbps available for a similar price as the $60 to $80 customers currently pay for speeds in the range of 5 Mbps to 10 Mbps.