This department lead was originally published in the Calgary Herald’s Swerve magazine in May 2015.
Futurists predict that by the year 2025, the Gigabit Age will have arrived, bringing with it everything from Oculus-like headsets to holodecks to 3-D printed recyclable clothing to immersive 3-D porn.
Plus Skype won’t break up nearly as much.
From where I’m sitting—at 10 unreliable megabits per second on the upload and 12 equally unreliable megabits per second on the download—the Gigabit Age seems so remote it may as well be a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But there are a select few who already have access to these semi-mythical gigabit-per-second speeds: Internet gurus, Google headquarters, governments, the affluent and famous. And Olds, Alberta.
The community of 8,600 about 90 kilometres north of Calgary completed the build-out of its gigabit-per-second bandwidth network in December. That means 2.65 million metres of fibre cable and 15 million metres of fibre optic strands now enable homes and businesses there to access the Internet at a full gigabit per-second for as little as $57 a month. What does that mean? The Internet in Olds is fast. Like really, really fast.
The network is the brainchild of the forward-thinkers who formed the Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development. They were helped by the local government, which took a hand in ensuring it was brought to life. But when it was near completion, existing telecom companies declined the invitation to tap the network.
Rather than abandon the initiative, the Institute decided to take over the project. The group registered a community-owned and -operated Internet provider called O-Net. All told, O-Net cost the Olds Institute about $21 million, with the money coming from a provincial grant, a loan backed by the town, and a line of credit.
Mitch Thomson, the institute’s executive director, says it was money well spent because the network helps Olds retain and attract business. But what about the regular Joes of Olds? What about the people more apt to use their superfast Internet to YouTube Flight of the Conchords’ “Business Time” rather than conduct actual business? How have their lives changed since the future arrived?
Slipping the Shackles
One of the Olds Institute’s goals for O-Net was to attract new residents to town. Enter Dean Humphrey, an apprentice steam engineer and avid gamer. Last year, the 25-year-old left his basement suite in southeast Calgary for Olds, drawn by the promise of O-Net. Well, there were two factors: “Is there a Walmart and how fast is the Internet?”
This might seem a bit simplistic—what of high art, alchemy, self-discovery in the desert? That is, until Humphrey WoWs you with his logic. He had been paying Shaw $60 a month for 25 megabits on the download and 2.5 on the upload, but was experiencing bottlenecking for certain services, citing blurred quality, blocking and dropped frames when playing his favourite games. “If I wanted to get something that would allow me to stream HD in Calgary, I think I’d be paying over $200 a month,” he says.
Humphrey started doing speed tests in other towns and cities, including Olds. “Here the best package was $90 a month, and that’s their top residential package, which is a gigabit up and down,” he says. “It’s 40 times faster on the download and almost 400 times faster on the upload. You can really do whatever you want with it. You come here and it’s like taking the shackles off,” he says.
He’s a happy gamer, and he has also discovered a few non-virtual benefits of moving from the big city. His rent and car insurance are both cheaper in Olds, and his new home is within walking distance of three bars.
Not everyone is as passionate about the Internet as Humphrey, but members of a family of four can sure drum up some emotion when it stops working. Just ask field operator Dale Worth, a husband and father of two, who, like Humphrey, enjoys his games, and jokes that “if the Internet doesn’t work, it’s almost the end of (my) world.”
Before O-Net, Dale paid for the premium packages from Shaw and Telus, but still had problems. “I’d be playing a game and the wife would want to upload a picture, and I’d end up not being able to do anything while that picture was uploading,” he says. “It was ridiculous. I was paying lots of money but if my wife went on to text a picture to a friend, everything would come to a standstill.”
The Worth residence was one of the first to switch to O-Net, and Dale says his games haven’t lagged since. His wife, Krystal, says “there is no frustration in my house” now that all her family members are able to use the Internet simultaneously.
Speed Jumps the Generation Gap
What about the generation that has been keeping calm since polio was more viral than a motivational poster? Longtime resident and retiree Linda Hawthorne, 72, says that while some people her age don’t use computers and don’t care about O-Net, she was, and remains, an early adopter.
She got herself an Apple computer in the 1980s, and, during her teaching career at Olds Elementary School, she was introduced to fibre optics decades ago. “Somebody came in and showed the kids what fibre optics were, and I still remember the cable and all the little fibre optic strands in it,” Hawthorne says. “I remember thinking at that time, ‘Wow, this is really a cool thing.’”
She saw fibre optics being used in lamps not long after, and when she heard the Olds Institute was considering building a fibre optic network for the town, her interest was sparked again. “I know there are a lot of people my age who aren’t used to computers and they don’t care,” Hawthorne says, but I’ve always been interested and I just think it’s fantastic.”
While she considers herself a small user, mostly going online for personal research, photo-editing projects, and Skyping with family in New Zealand, she switched from Telus to O-Net at the first opportunity. “If you’re at all interested in technology, you’re nuts if you don’t go for this,” she says. “To me, the future is technology.”