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High and dry in the (Internet) sticks Add to ...

My few and admittedly brief forays into the world of small, independent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have mystified me - filled me with abject confusion - because for the life of me I can't figure out why people would go the lengths they do to hook up their remote, close-knit communities to the Internet.

I'm, of course, being a tad facetious. I know full well how crucial a reliable, high-speed connection to the Internet is in 2010. And, since many large telecoms cannot or will not provide services in areas where thin population density reduces the ROI (return on investment), I'm not surprised that people get fed up and strike out on their own.

But, geez, it ain't easy.

First, we're talking huge difficulties and distances: In the Peace Region area of northeastern British Columbia, these guys are putting towers up near the Alaska highway, trekking through the bush with telecom equipment, and placing signal repeaters on mountains simply to reach one or two houses - at most, sometimes, a community of 12 people.

Second, the competition: These small ISPs - sometimes Internet co-ops or publicly supported Internet societies, and sometimes small mom-and-pop community businesses - have to make business decisions under very fragile situations. Since the subscriber numbers are so small (ranging from a couple of hundred to a few thousand), if some massive company stomps in, puts up a tower, and begins offering cheaper service, then you're basically going to have to declare bankruptcy.

In some cases, national or regional providers will be more than happy to come in, provide service, bankrupt the local ISP, and then allow really remote people to have their service cancelled (since a big ISP with clearer profit motives is less likely to spend hours tromping through the woods to nail a signal repeater to a fir tree so that the George family down in the valley can get high speed Internet beyond satellite and the odd e-mail).

Third, the regulatory situation: This is probably the most frustrating part for these small providers. They go through all the entrepreneurial effort to build a business, gain subscribers, perhaps gain a little bit of heft, and, maybe, and this is a very big maybe, make a bit of money; and then the government - ahem, I'll try and be polite here - does not exactly make it easy for them to survive.

Earlier this year, I reported that the much ballyhooed federal broadband stimulus fund designed to close the digital divide between urban and rural Canadians may in fact ruin and bankrupt a whole bunch of rural Internet providers. It may - or may not - do this by giving a whole bunch of public cash to larger, regional or national providers, who have less incentive to connect the aforementioned Georges and may, or may not, simply leave their equipment to rust and ruination if the profitability of the arrangement ceases to make sense.

In some cases, the coverage of these small ISPs isn't being mapped and counted by Ottawa and the provinces before they allocate funding. And in other cases, private-sector ISPs are left anxious and confused as to when, and how, government money will be given to potential competitors - freezing their own investment decisions and build-outs because they don't know whether revenues can justify expansion.

In addition, there is the truly bizarre fact that some of these Internet providers - staffed, apparently, by trail-blazing woodsmen and woodswomen who will haul equipment on foot and skis - are not considered Canadians by someone sitting at a desk in Ottawa.

I'm not, of course, saying that national telecom providers like Bell, Telus and Rogers, or regional providers like Shaw, have no role in helping Ottawa close the digital divide. In fact, they are integral to this effort; and their top executives are some of the few with the know-how and expertise in helping Ottawa solve the problem. But they talk in sweeping, national terms befitting their scale and hugeness - say, by stating that wireless broadband Internet will reach 93 per cent of all Canadians.

Now, that's a lot of Canadians, if its true. But there's pretty much no way we can tell whether it's true or not, given that leaves on trees, dips in roads, valleys and hills will blot out entire communities from that coverage. That, and what are that 7 per cent meant to do? Wait a few years for promised new satellite technology that may or may not come online, even as people in cities, suburbs and small towns receive Internet speeds - and, in some cases, government services - that are far faster and far more useful?

It's hard to say. And the CRTC will begin working this out in late October when it begins investigating whether broadband Internet - loosely defined as the already-nearly-obsolete speed of 1.5 megabits per second - should be made a "basic service" on par with home phone and dial-up Internet.

But what is relatively easy to say is this: Ottawa should figure out a way to work more effectively and co-operatively with small ISPs, who are doing the unprofitable dirty work of providing high-speed Internet to deep rural Canadians, which may allow bigger telecom providers off the hook in terms of connecting this huge, vast and not entirely online country.

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