1993: - Life Before PRIS
In the late 80's and early 90's, not much was happening in the Peace: Wheat grew. Cows ate grass. Oil was pumped out of the ground. Some pick-up trucks were seen driving around occasionally. Meanwhile, to the south of us, the Internet was growing from being a military communications network (designed for redundancy in case an enemy missile knocked out a key telephone line), to a communications network connecting Universities and academic institutions.
In early 1993, The South Peace Senior Secondary School had acquired two dial-up lines into the Internet through the Community Learning Network (CLN). At that time, there was no World-Wide Web...just old-fashioned printed characters on a teletype screen. That was the total extent of the Peace's connection to the Net. Other than that, you dialed Long-Distance.
In late 1993, an invitation was extended to all interested community members to meet at Northern Lights College in Dawson Creek. The meeting was dubbed "Communications 1993". It was spearheaded by Craig Young, Al Brett, and Gordon Currie. The meeting was attended not only by school, college, and science representatives, but by a broad crossection of people from private businesses, community orgasnizations, and Joe Q. Public. All had heard of the evolution of data communications in 'The Rest of Canada', and shared a concern that the Peace, could, as usual, get left behind as the rest of the world started heading down the Information Highway. There was definately sufficient interest expressed to convince the organizers to try to address their concern locally.
At that meeting is was decided to seek seed funding to set up an 'Internet Node' (Look it up in a dictionary of Archaic English expressions.) It would consist of one computer connected to the Internet at 19,200 bps. 8 modems (racing along at 14,400 kbps) would dial into this computer using VT-100 teminal access mode, and thus indirectly connect to the Net. It was to be "State of the Art" technology.
The Peace Region Internet Society was registered under the Society Act on 11 July 1994.
Not enough can be said about the dedication of Larry Legault in those early days. Larry was seconded on a half-time basis to procure equipment, configure all the stuff, arrange communications contracts, open bank accounts, register with the Tax guys, sign on new members, and advise these members on how to configure their computers. If this work was to be done on a half time basis, then his whole day must have been 39 hours long.
If you do not know the difference between a kilobit and a byte, or can't use your computer without a mouse, you may wish to skip some of the next paragraphs.
(Now that they are gone, let's continue.) The system at that time consisted of a Sun SPARCstation-5, 70-Mhz., 64-meg UNIX box (UNIX?), a Xyplex 16-Port Terminal Server, complete with 1,200 page manual, and 8 USR 14,400 Modems. The parts arrived in August of 1994. In September, the pris.bc.ca domain was registered, a 19,200 baud link was installed through BC Systems, and PRIS was talking to the world! Gradually, services such as Archie, FTP, Telnet, Gopher, Pine, Kermit, z-modem, sendmail, pico, and TIN were added to the Sun's capabilities (Refer back to your dictionary of Archaic English Expressions....), and members started to trickle in.
The Internet was fun to use then. If you wanted to see a picture, you would log on to the Xyplex, telnet into the Sun, FTP to NASA, download a picture of the earth from outer space to your working directory on the Sun, use Kermit to download it from the Sun onto your machine at home, decode the file, and print the picture. The whole thing took about 12 minutes... It was that easy... and exciting!
If you did not know exactly where a piece of information (stored in files) was, you even had a search engine...of a kind...sort-of... You could use these newly evolving features, such as Archie, and his improved side-kick called 'Veronica' with your keyboard interface. Type in a word, and you might get back a listing of, say, 30 locations that had files which included the word you were looking for. Once you had this list, you jotted it down, and then you could type in the address of the listed article you thought you might try to chase down, logging in as 'anonymous', with a password of your e-mail address. Download the file to the Sun, open it with your pico editor, and discover that your search for new wheat varieties had yielded you a recipe for wheat muffins....We learned to type the word 'anonymous' very well.
By the early summer of 1995 PRIS had 350 members, but over 200 of those were Northern Lights College staff members, who did not have to pay for their accounts. We had added 2 lines in Chetwynd and Fort Nelson, and 4 in Ft St John. Speeds in these towns were limited to a blazing 9,600 baud.
In the summer of 1995, PRIS hired a summer student to assist Larry. Jason Seto arrived, fresh out of high school, smart as a whip. His burning passion was to get PRIS members to be able to have PPP connections, and to be able to use World Wide Web Browsers, (mainly Netscape). These browsers permitted people other than nerdy computer types to find information on the Net easily, in an environment that was rich in graphical images, and pleasing to look at. Anybody who could point and click a mouse could use the Internet.
PPP was operational in August of 1995. While using the net was easy, the initial configuration of Windows to handle PPP connections was more difficult, and Jason was kept very busy helping people set up. By the time Jason left for University in the fall, the increase in membership, and the increased bandwidth needed to handle this graphical environment, had put a strain on the capacity of our connection link to the world. PRIS entered into a contract with Westel Telecommunications to increase the size of our connection to the world from 19,200bps to 128,000bps. It was overkill, but this bandwidth would last us a lifetime!
A very interesting thing happened when PRIS started offering PPP. Prior to this, people who were interested in the Internet were already well versed in computer usage. When the World Wide Web became prevalent, people started going out and buying computers specifically so that they could get on the Net. These people needed technical support not just about the Net, but also about such rudamentary operations as how to resize a window, ("Oh, you mean this phone cordy thing has to be plugged into my phone jack?.. I thought it was an antenna.")
People signed up in droves.. These people were scary: They had not been in since the early days. They had no concept of how the Internet worked, how many different protocols and hardware devices had to mesh perfectly for things to work...nor did they care. They wanted something that worked: all the time, every time...like the phone or the radio. They did not have the patience to wait for a picture to download in 30 seconds. They wanted pages to load across the Net just as fast as they would load from their hard drives. No sooner had PRIS designed self-installing disk sets in order to make set-up easier on Windows 3.1, than Windows 95 came out, with entirely new software. No sooner had PRIS stocked up on 14,400 modems, than 28,800 modems became available.
By the end of 1995, PRIS had grown to a membership of just under 700. Tumbler Ridge had joined the network, with two dial-up lines. Larry and Jason had moved on to other things, and PRIS' day to day operations were being undertaken by one full-time contract position. PRIS started handling its own bookkeeping at this stage, with the able assistance of Terri Barber, seconded from the College staff on a part-time basis.
PRIS was financially self-sufficient, and had satisfied all of its initial grant obligations.
PRIS was rapidly outgrowing the office that had been donated by the College. The Office was spacious only by submarine standards. Brian McNeil (at that time a student on a job experience rotation) started working at PRIS part-time. Brian and Arvo proved that, contrary to popular belief, two people could pass each other, if they turned sideways, and did not trip over the phone cords. PRIS had also expanded to the point that it had used up all of the College's spare communications lines. It was time to move on. Fortunately, at this time, School District #59 was seeking ways of getting the classrooms of the Peace 'connected'. A mutually beneficial arrangement was reached, where PRIS would provide connectivity to the Schools of the South Peace, in exchange for the use of recently freed up facilities within the school district. It was a win-win situation: PRIS utilized spare school facilities, and the school used PRIS bandwidth during the day, when the system was at lower load levels.
PRIS moved into its present luxurious quarters in the fall of 1996, and the classrooms of the Peace joined the Infobahn.
PRIS also established its own POP in Chetwynd, again in concert with SD59. The POP was joined to the world with its own independent 128k line to the world. PRIS could handle modem speeds of 33,600 baud. Community Access Project (CAP) funding helped with the initial set-up costs. PRIS also established a POP in Ft St John, in facilities it had rented from a local business. A 128 K line connected a pool or 30 33,600 baud dial-up lines to the world. Tumbler Ridge and Ft Nelson continued to operate on leased modem pools, on analog lines, with maximum attainable speeds of 26,400 baud.
By the end of 1996, PRIS membership was about 1800, an increase of over 1000 in one year. PRIS was providing free Internet connectivity to all of the public libraries in the Peace. Bandwidth from Dawson Creek had increased twelve-fold in that year, from 128k to 1,442,560 bits per second.
In January of 1997 PRIS staffing increased dramatically. PRIS now had its current staff of four full-time salaried employees.
During the year, system reliability increased, with redundancy in all the major components of the system. New hardware was purchased to handle the increased loads that members were placing on the system, Software was written to enable PRIS to identify and deal with potential system problems rapidly before they affected users. PRIS staff developed methods to reduce (filter out) the increasing loads of unsolicited junk mail (SPAM) that PRIS members were being subjected to. PRIS also started hosting virtual domains, enabling businesses to have the equivalent of a fully independent server on the Internet, without the normal difficulties of having to acquire their own high-end computers, connections, and software.
Concerted efforts were directed towards the provision of Internet access for the schools in Tumbler Ridge and the improvement of the quality of the dial-up service in that town. This led to a venture in the world of satellite Internet connectivity. It would prove to be a costly venture, and one which most would wish to forget. Tumbler's connectivity problems were ultimately addressed with the establishment of a POP at the Senior Secondary School, with 30 33,600 Dial-up lines and a 128 k dedicated land link to Dawson. A small portion of the funding for this was obtained from the Community Access Project (CAP).
1997 also marked the arrival of competetive ISP's within the Peace. PRIS welcomed the broadening of the Internet services available to the community, at the same time ensuring that it would continue to meet community needs at the best possible cost.
Our partnering business in Ft St John also decided to venture into the ISP business independently, and so we felt it best to part ways (amicably). PRIS was fortunate in that it was able to relocate to a site adjascent to its outbound line, so that the PRIS feed plugged straight into the Westel backbone, leading to the very cleanest possible, broad-bandwidth connection to the world.
PRIS acquired its new logo. Graphical design work was donated by one of our members, Judy Arndt.
The year closed with a membership of 2100.
Web Browsers move from 'just pictures and words' to music stations streaming real-time audio signals, and movies. Members demand more bandwidth, and faster data speeds to enjoy these features. Modem manufacturers offer 56k modems, which actually deliver 46 to 50k if you are headed downhill with a tailwind.
And all ISP's had to do to support these new speeds was to trash all their existing equipment, and get new stuff for $40,000. In the summer of '98 PRIS capitulated, and started exploring the potential for supporting these higher speeds. The local telco could start supporting digital lines in late November, and PRIS's first 56k lines arrived shortly thereafter in Dawson Creek and Ft St John. At that time, PRIS could also support single and double channel ISDN for those who needed faster connections yet. These higher speeds could not be supported in the other towns, due to telco limitations.
With the advent of such new Internet features, PRIS discovered that members were spending more time on-line. The traditional user:line ratios of 10:1 were no longer tenable. In order to reduce the likelihood of busy signals, user:line ratios were decreased to 8:1, well above industry standards. In addition, PRIS introduced a line management protocol that would ensure more equitable access for all members: Users who tended to 'Park' on line for typically more than 10 hours a day found that they were being 'bumped' to make room for others, on those rare occasions when all lines filled up. They received a polite e-mail, explaining what had happened. The introduction of this protocol went unnoticed by 99% of PRIS members.
What didn't go unnoticed was the reduction by $5.00/month in the price that members needed to pay for their connectivity. For the first time, the benefits of belonging to a not-for-profit society became evident in members' pocket-books.
The PRIS web site underwent major brain surgery, becoming smart enough to automatically recognize our individual members. With this increased intelligence, members could now change passwords, create aliases for themselves, check their usage times, and verify their account status with complete confidentiality.
In the autumn of '98, the outbound bandwidth in Chetwynd was increased from 128k to 721k. This increase in bandwidth was accomplished with the use of new spread-spectrum radio technology to transmit the signal from Chetwynd to the Westel micro-wave backbone atop Wabi Hill. The increased bandwidth was immediately apparent, and appreciated by heavy Internet users in that town.
PRIS matured substantially at the administrative level: A manual defining the responsibilities and duties of staff and directors was authored by Gerald Clare, and adopted by the board.
The year ended with a membership of 2750
PRIS continues to take on broader responsibilities to the communities it serves.
Quite honestly, we don't quite know what changes will happen at PRIS in this current year. Quite likely, the emphasis will be on providing our Peace businesses with the technological assistance required for them to become part of the emerging global e-commerce community.
Membership climbs to 3828...
We DO know that we will breath a sigh of relief when we know that we will never again hear the expression "Y2K" or "Millennium Bug". We also know that staff will play it safe, and unplug all our servers on Christmas, canoe to Hawaii and not think about anything to do with PRIS until January 3rd, 2000 Anno Domini.
The stroke of midnight, and Nothing Happens!. For the rest of the year, however, a lot happens. Everybody now reconzes that computational access is a necessary fact of life. Businesses and organizations have been allocated pots of money to avoid catastrophe, and use the money to expand and upgrade their networks. The PRiS Board hold a planning session in April to develop a 5 year vision for the Society, with all the contemporary 'Mission Statements', 'Visions', 'Barriers to Achieving Goals', 'Steps to Overcome Barriers', 'Tear Sheets', 'Preference Pins', blah, blah... What can I say? Those were the times... Like the polyester and bellbottoms of another age.
Some important trends are identified however: The rest of the world is talking about Broadband Internet, where each individual member has as much bandwidth as an entire town has at this time. It becomes apparent that, again, the Peace has been categorized as a "Tier 3" community by the big players, and that we are unlikely to see this technology until 2005. But we were being a bit demanding. After all, this year party-line service had just been phased out by the phone company! How greedy could we be?
PRiS' attempt to co-locate ADSL DSLAM's on the phone company's copper phone lines is met with a cold 'No'. PRiS looks to the newly emerging wireless technology to transfer data to members at Broadband speeds. By the end of the year, PRiS has established a wireless point of presence on the grain elevator in Dawson Creek, and has 10 customers hooked up for trial service. The results looks promising and affordable, but its ubiquity is compromised by the fact that each customer must be able to locate an antenna in such a way that it could 'see' our access point.
School districts in the Peace are obliged to participate in a province-wide network proposal called PLNet. This means that schools, and some libraries, have to leave the free service that PRiS had provided to participate in this plan, at a significant increased cost to the province. Such is the process of rationalization. While it does not affect PRiS, Internet access in other rural communities takes a big hit, as schools had been anchor tenants for some community ISP's.
Things do not stand still on the dial-up front:
A fifth staff member is hired to assist members.
Dial-up rates fall from $25 to less than $20 per month.
PRiS installs it's own CO in Fort Nelson and upgrades dial-up speeds to 56K there.
Membership climbs 36% to 5227!
More dial-up accounts, wireless becomes entrenched, more members, and a new staff member... no standing still!
Fibre connectivity comes to the Peace, increasing our bandwidth out of the Peace. At the top of this page, we reported bandwidth in bits per second, and now we report bandwidth in millions of bits per second: 50 Mbps, to be exact. More than enough to meet the needs of Broadband wireless service for the general membership. The wireless access points go up in Ft St John and Dawson Creek.
The folks of Hudson's Hope face a bit of a crisis as the satellite service that the Hudson's Hope Community Network Society had been using comes to an end. The HHCNS and PRiS agree to consolidate, and Hudson's Hope joins the PRiS fold. PRiS establishes a wireless backhaul to Ft St John under bitter winter temperatures to restore and expand services. Members now have the choice between an expanded Dial-Up service or wireless broadband, but PRiS recognizes that the link they established was an interim measure that would need to be augmented in the future. Nonetheless, the establishment of a 1 megabit link of ten 2.4 Ghz radios with one wireless shot over 80Km long is a unique achievement for the time, and PRiS staff feel a great sense of accomplishment.
In order to improve access to the net for people who do not have personal accounts, PRiS donates 2 computers to each of the public libraries in Tumbler Ridge, Dawson Creek, Fort Nelson, and Hudson's Hope.
The need to be able to offer ADSL becomes acute, and on a trip to the lower mainland, PRiS makes such a strong business case to the phone company to participate in rolling out ADSL that the phone company agrees, but becomes convinced that it should roll out its own competing retail ADSL service here also. This proves to be a double-edged sword.
ADSL arrives in November. Membership reaches a zenith of 6800, another year of increase in excess of 30%. Gross receipts break the million dollar a year mark.
Because the phone company owns the copper wire, and the termination facilities for the telephones, and has no intention of sharing this legacy that they inherited from more monopolistic times, PRiS is left at its mercy in terms of providing ADSL services to its members. The wholesale prices extracted and service levels provided for access to these facilities ensure that the playing field for the provision of these services is 'just a little bit' tilted in the favour of their own retail offerings.
PRiS was originally formed to ensure that ALL residents of the Peace had access to affordable Internet services: It had never intended to become a competitor with others for 'customers'. The advent of comparable services from the Incumbent telephone carrier leads PRiS to re-examine its focus.
It becomes evident that telephone company is driven by a different agenda. It's purpose is to maximize corporate profits by offering Broadband ONLY to those areas that can be served at the lowest cost: essentially 'skimming the cream' off the market. The phenomenon becomes evident everywhere, and the expression 'Digital Divide' is born. Larger urban communities get Broadband at bargain basement prices, while smaller communities and rural residents find themselves on the wrong side of the Divide. As the easy to serve membership gets raided, PRiS finds it increasingly difficult to provide universal access.
PRiS decides that it is essential to compete in the urban ADSL market to ensure that it has adequate resources to address the needs of the underserved, but commits to concentrating on underserved regions. The solution lies in wireless technology. In this year, PRiS expands to offer wireless service in Pouce Coupe, Taylor, Tumbler Ridge and Chetwynd, regions the large corporations find lower down on their profitability charts.
Access points for rural residents and the oil patch are added at Briar Ridge, Bear Mountain, McKinnon, and Mountainview, and 300 locations are connected wirelessly. Particularly rewarding is the fact that some remote members who could not get even telephone service now have broadband access to the world.
Broadband Internet brings new management challenges: Home computers are now full-time integral parts of the Internetwork, yet are not managed by IT professionals. Kids, and unscrupulous 'Businessmen' all have the potential to abuse bandwidth, e-mail, or other computers. Member computers become increasingly at risk of abuse or compromise.
To combat such new problems, PRiS develops e-mail virus traps, SPAM filters, and bandwidth management protocols, and member support levels rise considerably.
PRiS opens a new office in Ft St John within the Computer Factory to assist in offering more local support. There are now 7 full-time staff members. Membership continues to grow strongly in the smaller communities, but raids on Dawson Creek and Ft St John membership exact their toll. We end the year with 6250 members.
Larger communities across North America, including Dawson Creek and Ft St John, become a battleground between cable companies and multinational telephone companies for subscriptions to broadband services. Fat wallets, cross-subsidization from profitable tariffed services, and greed encourage non-rational behaviour to capture market share by making offerings that are dramatically below the cost of providing services. The CRTC, whose job it is to ensure that there is diversity of service and fair competition, stands aside and watches, not knowing when to intervene. The PRiS membership get personal phone calls urging them to switch to their phone or cable company for broadband services, with promises of reduced rates for the first year, and trade-ins for competing equipment (that is promptly destroyed to make the return path more difficult).
PRiS reluctantly decides that it must chase prices down, and offers 'Introductory Pricing' for new ADSL members, and maintains its price advantage over all competetive offerings. As PRiS is not-for-profit, it struggles with the concept of subsidizing new members at the expense of the established membership. Such is the price of entering the 'free market'.
Meanwhile, the digital divide continues to become more entrenched outside of urban areas. Federal initiatives are designed to help address the connectivity challenges faced by rural regions. PRiS participates in a number of coalitions of BC regions that try to work together to expand broadband connectivity. It becomes evident that PRiS had been leading the way in terms of locally driven, community-based rural wireless connectivity. PRiS becomes involved in a number of workshops to share their experiences with other regions of the Province.
PRiS experiences firsthand the truth of the old business adage of "Never buy wholesale from somebody who is competing with you retail" with reference to its relationship with the incumbent communications company. It continues to be challenged in getting the provider to share PRiS's sense of urgency in dealing with upstream outages, and billing discrepancies that were at times in excess of $200,000 need to be brought to the attention of the CRTC to reach resolution. The need for long-term development of alternative networks in concert with other BC communities is reinforced.
PRiS completely redesigns its Web Site. The new site provides the membership with occasional light reading, a free, fully customizable SPAM filter, and a web based mail interface that enables members to send and receive mail from anywhere in the world.
PRiS Broadband membership reaches 1100 by the end of the year (ADSL and Wireless), but total membership slides to 5640.
One of the most significant challenges we face in our efforts to expand service into rural areas is gaining access to existing towers. There are lots of existing excellent towers on most of the geographically advantageous sites. Unfortunately, many are owned by the larger communications companies that refuse to grant us co-location rights for our little tiny access point antennas, essentially stating that it not part of their corporate policy to do so. This is evident in that in many places in the Peace there are two 300 Ft towers within meters of each other, each owned by separate competing communications companies, yet there are other underserved areas that have no towers whatsoever. PRiS, in order to provide Broadband services to the rural community are, as such, relegated to trying to gain access to less advantageous sites, or building new towers. Some day, it will be recognized that tower construction/ access/ co-location should be regulated to the greater benefit of the local communities. In the meantime, efforts to provide broadband access to places such as Flatrock, Rose Prairie, Progress, Farmington, and Bonanza go into a protracted holding pattern.
Members who are restricted to dialup service are not entirely abandoned however. A new PRiS Xlrator service is launched that takes advantage of caching and compression to speed up the effective transfer of digital content by as much as seven times, and Hudson's Hope is the final town to upgrade to digital Dial-up service.
The PRiS Board formalized its policy of granting no-cost and low-cost Internet to registered groups that benefit the cultural or social well-being of the region, and encourages non-profit groups to apply.
The move from Dial-up to Broadband continues, membership holds its own, but net returns to the Society slip into the red for the first time in its history. The salad years come to an end. Over 60 ISP's across the province fold, as the Telcos sweep over the lucratice town cores. It is a time for prudent, calm, retrenchement.
One of the ISP casualties is in Ft St John, and PRiS agrees to adopt its members: OCOL.com is folded into PRiS.ca.
At the other end of the territory, PRiS determines that it cannot puchase sufficient bandwidth in Ft Nelson to offer broadband to is members, and reluctantly sheds over 500 long-time members in that community to avert the unavoidable attrition to Telco-operated ADSL services. Sadly, it leaves those Ft Nelson members that are not served by the Telco without Broadband options. Such areas become known as the unserved, abandoned 'Donuts' around communities.
Exceptional individuals within the Provincial Government become acutely aware that Broadband access is being demanded by ALL of its citizens. Further, they recognize that Broadband is an economic necessity not only for urban dwellers, but also for those people living outside the rural centers. At the most self-serving level, the Government realizes that their attempts to virtualize e-government would be held in contempt by those who would not have access to Broadband. PRiS is an active participant in terms of advocacy, and is invited to sit on a number of advisory boards. The PRiS System Administrator holds the position of Chairman of the BC Community Connectivity Coop, and advocates for the role of community owned networks as a means of attaning more ubiquitous regional coverage. Several very unique programs emerge, whereby the Telco's build uniformly priced network backbones into communities in exchange for getting the full government spend on communications services. 'Last Mile' connectivity is to be provided by community networks. PRiS is held up as an example of how this could work.
A number of wireless access points are added to the PRiS network in this year, including two in Charlie Lake. Total broadband subscribership exceeds 1300, and the finances turn back into the black.
The School Board puts the building we live in up for sale! We are caught by surprise: We have so many immovable assets invested in it. We buy the building...Cash on the table. It feels good: Security, stability, and the affirmation that PRiS is here to stay for the long haul.
Three staff members move on! It felt sad. We had been a bit like a family for nine years. Until then, when people had asked us if we had job openings, we would say that it would be unlikely unless one of us died. We were fortunate in that we were able to find very qualified replacements that could step in and help make the transition as smooth as it was.
The move to broadband continues unabated. For the first time we actually reduce the number of dial-up lines we had in service as people migrate to wireless and ADSL with PRiS. New Wireless access points are added to extend the coverage of Broadband to Rolla, Clayhurst, Bonanza, Beryl Prairie, and Lynx Creek. We connect Chetwynd to our network with a state of the art wireless microwave backbone via Charlie Hill and Wabi Hill, reducing costs and increasing bandwidth to that community. A wrinkle in the Government CCA/CNIG plan makes Moberly Lake slip off the PRiS planning table, but there is the promise that other more local players will step in to serve the communities there. We elect to defer to them.
We close out the year with over 1500 Broadband accounts, but total membership slips to less than 5000.
The concept of broadband 'entitlement' continues to grow. People can actually get angry when they are told we cannot provide broadband connectivity at their current location. Broadband access becomes a big factor in setting the price of Real Estate. One person proposed that those citizens who cannot get broadband should get a tax rebate of the money the government saves by going to e-government, since they cannot partake of those services!
The Municipality of Ft St John puts out a request for proposals to blanket the city with wireless Internet coverage. PRiS considers the RFP, but based on knowledge gained from participating in a number of conferences, declines to submit a proposal. The project dies a quiet and required death. PRiS sees no reason to overbuild residential areas that already have wired broadband with a wireless umbrella.
But the really exciting story in this is that the City had considered that municipalities might play some role in Broadband, tacitly acknowledging that Broadband connectivity qualifies as 'Infrastructure'. With time, no doubt the towns of the Peace will redefine their goals in a more rational manner, and will accept their essential role in planning, facilitating, and deploying a sound fibre infrastructure that will deliver next-generation connectivity to their constituents!
PRiS takes a more rational approach to the concept of wireless coverage, and makes a policy of installing free public 'HotSpots' at places such as Airports, Tourist Information Centers, tourist stopping points, and even cafe gathering places such as the Cosmic Grounds. Nine sites are installed. More participants to such a plan are actively sought. It's a 'community thing'.
At the 2007 ICT Summit in Vancouver, Arvo Koppel accepts the John Webb Community Champion Award for the work done with PRiS and the BC Community Connectivity Co-operative in demonstrating servant leadership, energy, and passion for the cause of community networking.
PRiS is also honoured with an award from Sci-Tech North in the category "Technology Support", for providing technology support to other enterprises while fostering a greater understanding of technology.
2007 is a sound year financially. Membership declines for dial-up and ADSL, but is made up for by a strong increase in rural wireless accounts which now exceed 1000. Nonetheless, the continued loss of ADSL accounts to the Telcos is worrisome, and PRiS hires a consulting firm to provide guidance to the Board. on ways of increasing retention and attracting new members.
The PRiS wireless network grows dramatically this year. The coverage areas are expanded to include Tomslake, Farmington, Baldonnel, the North Pine region, and previously excuded parts of Tumbler Ridge, including the new Industrial Park about 10 KM south of Town. As the year is not yet over, there are hopes to also cover Cecil Lake and Rose Prairie/Montney before the winter sets in. So far this year, there is a 25% increase in rural wireless subscribers.
These new access points demonstrate the value of working on networks as an entire community:
The North Pine region is made possible by collaboration with the Peace River Regional District for access to an older TV Broadcast tower.
The Baldonnel and Tumbler access points are possible because permission was granted to use the local schools for mast placement.
The Farmington Access point is born thanks to a private tower owned by a community member.
The Tomslake Access point is placed atop a local farmer's Harvestore silo.
New technoloogy also plays a role in expanding connectivity: PRiS develops designs for remote, self-contained wireless access points using new solar power technology in combination with radios that can operate reliably at cold temperatures, drawing miniscule amounts of power. Further experinece with these will put us in a position to use geographically advantageous locations without worrying about hydro availability!
Unfortunately though, the world is not as rosy as it might seem at first glance: The popularity of U-Tube, file sharing, and the attempts by some to download full-length HD movies across the networks have caused severe stress not only on our ADSL and rural broadband lines, but on the entire Internet network. People's definition of 'Broadband' changes from the ability to 'download a web page 10 times faster than on Dial-up!' to having the ability to steadily stream 3 megabits per second of multimedia all day. Our great new wireless technology (and ADSL) fall short of the latest definition, and a new 'Digital Divide' comes into existence before we overcome the first one! Worse yet, those people wanting access to free movies and unlimited gaming potential are destroying the Internet for 'conventional' uses.
PRiS invests heavily in resources to provide increased capacity to its existing membership base, with no compensatory increase in revenue. Rural Access points that were originally adequate with one radio, are upgraded to three, and even six radios of newer designs in an attempt to stay ahead of demand. The Internet community is forced to 'manage' traffic, effectively making 'value judgements' based on different traffic types and volumes. A national debate rages over whether traffic shaping necessarily violates 'network neutrality'. The metaphor of the 'Tragedy of the Commons' gains new traction in this context. PRiS reluctantly develops its own unique traffic shaping algorithms that strive for equitable access with no more constraints than are required for network health.
At this time, PRiS manages 58 Access Point (AP) radios, plus 56 backbone radios to connect the AP's back to the Internet. The nightmare scenario for PRiS staff is that if a radio failed only once a year, there would be one network radio failure every three days! Thankfully, this does not happen, and, for the most part, things keep humming along.
Membership statistics for 2008? It's not over yet!
Membership number's for 2008? I forget.. Seems like a long time ago.
PRiS succesfully applied for grants to speed up the provision of Broadband to the rural areas. The grants came from the Province of British Columbia's 'Connecting Citizens Grant Program', a program designed and administered by NetWork BC. It is appropriate to give credit to this branch of the Government. They have been long-time supporters of Broadband access for rural and remote residents, and have been very responsive to advice offered by local community networks.
The grants have been instrumental in supporting our initiatives to extend wireless access to Rose Prairie, Montney, Lone Prairie, East Pine, Groundbirch, and Sunset Priarie. The recruitment of members to these services has been slower than anticipated, primarily because PRiS had not publicized these developments sufficiently, but it was expected to pick up in the coming year.
These were not the only access points established throughout the Peace. The number of access points increased from the counts above to a whopping 97 separate Access Point radios at 59 unique locations, and Broadband connections exceeded 2100, with about 3/4 of them being wireless, and the rest ADSL. Dial-up connections get the reputation of being connections of last resort, and fall to a meager 1250. PRiS resolves to upgrade these remaining accounts as quickly as feasible, putting in 'mini-access points', that might reach as few as 8 people each.
In order to meet the ever-increasing demands for bandwidth, PRiS starts to deploy new WiMAX technology on its wireless network. In addition to providing more capacity, it promises to share existing bandwidth more equitably among members.
PRiS is asked to take over providing service to former subscribers of a Ft St John ISP, and over 100 AWINK members join the PRiS network. The transition was more challenging than one might have hoped at the time, but the dust has settled since, and rural members have a new opportunity of upgrading from dial-up to wireless Broadband.
The PRiS web site gets a facelift, and members express the feeling that the change is just ducky. Particularly noteworthy is the development of a site that displays wireless coverage on the Google Earth mapping system in a way that reflects both terrain profiles and radio wave propagation characteristics. A great effort by the staff member involved.
PRiS starts planning for Next-Generation Connectivity! PRiS receives another Connecting Citizens Grant to assist in the deployment of a Fibre-To-The-Home project in one of our rural communities. Fibre offers the potential to increase bandwidth tenfold right at the outset, with virtually unlimited growth possibilites for the future. To undertake such a project in a rural community is truly unique. Initial costs are high, but when put in the context of a long-term infrastructure investment, it is a sound investment, one that will be appreciated by our childrens' generation.
Fibre technology will be the enabler of applications we have not yet dreamed of!
Canada's New Government decides that its economic recovery strategy should be to become a player in providing Broadband access to the rural and remote residents of Canada, and offers grants to enhance connectivity. It creates a finely honed map of supposedly unserved areas: so finely honed that it records a four square mile area around (my) farm as unserved, when (I) and both of my only rural neighbours have PRiS wireless service already. Essentially, it fails to recognize that PRiS and several First Nations community connectivity projects exist at all.
Ultimately, the Federal Government funding goes to an underspeed overpriced Satellite provider that uses an American Satellite. So much for stimulating local economic recovery or rural connectivity.
In an effort to provide greater bandwidth in some of our communities, PRiS applies for a license to operate in a specific frequency that was specifically set aside for Broadband Connectivity. We get turned down on the basis of not being able to demonstrate sufficient 'Canadian ownership and control'. Apparently PRiS, a Society composed of local citizens cannot do so, because we cannot show that 80% of our benefitting Shareholders are Canadian. Why? Because we do not have shareholders: We only have members and are 'controlled' by a volunteer elected Board of Dirctors.
After months of frustration, PRiS turns to the media, and with some rather pointed articles in the Globe and Mail, and with the help of the Minister responsible for Industry Canada, the impasse is broken: We are finally able to start offering WIMAX MiMo service on a licensed frequency!
The demand for bandwidth continues to grow across the entire network: PRiS copes with this by:
The Hudson's Hope Fibre network becomes a physical reality! Staff learn fibre splicing and other highly technological techniques such as trenching and 'pick and shovel work'. We have started down the road to the future! But looking back down that road over our shoulder....
The need for Dial-up connectivity continues to fall, and PRiS cuts back on the number of lines required in all towns. The infamous 'Internet Call Director' service that let people know that somebody wanted to phone you on your 'Land-line' ("What's that?") while you were on the Internet also dies without a whimper.
As a consequence, total PRiS membership declines to almost 3000 in 2010, but net revenues are positive, and we continue to increase the number of Broadband members, who are... mostly... Canadian, Eh?
A relatively unremarkable trip around the sun, except to those on the front lines. A year of updates, consolidation, and some rear-guard actions.
Perhaps the greatest achievement is the connection of the Blueberry River First Nations Reserve. PRiS applied for a Fibre backbone to the Reserve as part of the Connecting Communities Agreement with the Provice, and the Reserve received funding from the All Nations Trust Company (ANTCO) to connect every residence and business on the Reserve wirelessly. That way, everybody who needs it would have access, and those who became PRiS members could get full Broadband speeds. A side benefit is that Band offices, and the school gets significantly improved connectivity at no cost. There is anticipation that other First Nations Communities in our region could copy this model.
Ah, the 'Nickel' thing.... While over 50% of our wirelessly connected members use less than 5 Gigabytes of data per month, about 12% now exceed 20G and about 2% exceed 40Gigs per month, and a vocal 2 percent it is! ( A rough rule would be that a feature movie is about 0.7 Gigabytes). Under PRiS policy at that time, one either elected to pay for overages, or their priority for receiving data was lowered during busy times as usage went up. Most declined to pay more (arguably, 'their fair share') for their higher usage.
Nationally, this 2% felt that the networks could expand data rates 'for free' indefinately, and hence felt any usage-based charges or traffic management practices were a rip-off. No doubt, content providers, who were making profits under their 'distributed cost structure' (ie., Passing costs on to ISP's) were behind the scenes, cheering.
In any case, for the first time ever, the CRTC made some rules for ISP's to follow, even before defining what an ISP was. These rules govern what ISP's can do to manage traffic. PRiS conforms to these rules, and formalizes the description of these on the PRiS web site, but nonetheless it has to contend with a few complaints launched by some of its heavy users. The unending chase to provide more traffic to more users in a cost-responsible manner is underway!
As the dark days of December approached, we found some of our solar sites, particularly the inaccessible ones of course, getting a bit hungry. The wind turbine units we had added were not able to withstand ridge winds and we had an exceptionally cloudy season. Staff members enjoy a few winter wilderness experiences keeping radios alive, and vow to beef things up for the following year.
Right off the bat we are faced with our first challenge: Telephone companies get a significant victory at the CRTC on the ADSL front. Rates for access to the copper phone line infrastructure face a double whammy. First, the rates for access for residential lines get hit with an across the board increase of 27%. The phone company argued at the hearings that the lines can now support higher data speeds, and lump all lines into one category called 'up to 6Mbps'. Yet our towns have difficulty maintaining even a portion of such speeds in some cases.
In addition, the Phone companies are permitted to rate some lines as 'Business Lines' and win the right to charge a 70% increase, despite the fact that the service is identical to residential service. The reason that is given is that businesses can afford to pay more: Tell that to the person who operates a crafts-based web site out of their home. PRiS successfully launches a response that moves these businesses off the ADSL network and onto a new standard of licensed wireless service that is both faster and more economical than the ADSL service.
The cool part of this episode is that we are now actively planning a similar high speed service for our rural wireless members with sufficient capacity to handle streaming media broadcasts. This will require a new parallel network: I guess we'll call it Wireless 2PointOh.
The high capacity fibre network in Hudson's Hope has seen some expansion this year, but until we reach more subscribers, the economics remain very challenging. A number of apartments are being developed in the town, and perhaps these will help reduce the average cost of service.
The Phone company has pulled a fibre line into Tumbler Ridge with significant contributions from a local corporate sponsor. This creates a new local competitor for Internet service. Always healthy and very welcome. It should also relieve local congestion on PRiS facilities there.
Dial-up continues to fade. Both Hudson's Hope and Tumbler Ridge see this service disappear completely. Other towns are likely to follow suit. In all cases, PRiS offers migration to similarly priced wireless connectivity where possible.
Nonetheless, PRiS continues on, with reserves that grant us the luxury of reaching more unserved community members, or adapting new technologies without being restricted by cash flows.
The world is temporarily divided into two species:
As you may have guessed, this writer travels the Old Fogie road, and for that reason he will, after 19 years, make way for others. It is hoped that whoever writes succeeding chapters will embrace the role of servant leadership: with the staff, with the membership, and with the yet unconnected; And will frequently pause to ask what is wise, what is fair, and what is just.
|Last Updated ( Friday, 26 October 2012 )|