Community broadband FAQs


What is municipal broadband?

Municipal broadband is a public Internet service provided by the community to its residents. Infrastructure is typically invested in by the local government, and is an alternative to Big Telecom’s privately-owned networks.

Who would offer services?

Internet services can be sold by municipalities themselves, nonprofits, small Internet service providers (ISPs), co-operatives, public utilities, public-private partnerships, and other community organizations. If the municipality operates the network under an open access policy, unused bandwidth capacity would be sold to ISPs for their use in retail. In other words, the municipality doesn’t have to become an ISP – it can build the network and let other companies sell services over it. To paraphrase from the film Field of Dreams, "If you build [a municipal network], [the ISPs] will come.”

What does it cost to build a municipal broadband network?

The cost of completion for a municipal broadband project varies by location. In Olds, Alberta, with a population under 10,000, expenses totalled around $21 million. The Niagara Regional Broadband Network (NRBN), in total, originally cost $13 million to complete. The Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN), which delivers service across hundreds of kilometers, required $170 million in funding. Of this budget, $70 million went toward laying new cables to connect 5,000 kilometers of existing fibre infrastructure.

What is the 'digital divide'?

The digital divide refers to the ever-widening gap between people who have adequate access to the Internet and those who do not. In many cases, the divide exists along geographic and socioeconomic lines, meaning there are millions of people in Canada with poor broadband access, unaffordable access, or no access at all. 

For the 1 in 10 people in Canada who do not have home Internet that meets their needs, it's essentially for one of two reasons: 

  • It's not available at their home, or
  • They can’t afford it. 

Even if quality Internet is technically available, high costs mean that people remain underserved. Canada’s Internet continues to be ranked among the most expensive in the world. The COVID-19 crisis has magnified both the weight of this high cost, and the consequences of not being able to afford access for everyday people.

The Internet is a crucial medium for free expression, with the result that Canadians who fall on the wrong side of the digital divide see their ability to express themselves restricted.

What does the digital divide have to do with community broadband?

The status quo isn’t fair to the millions Canadians on the wrong side of the digital divide. Community-owned broadband is one of the best ways we can close these gaps in Canada; it connects entire populations to state-of-the-art fibre networks, and levels the playing field when Big Telecom fails to connect everyone. It’s been shown to give people more power to choose their providers, overall cheaper Internet bills, and universal access to blazing fast speeds.

Why fibre optics?

There are many reasons why fibre is the future of Internet infrastructure. Fibre is the fastest and most reliable broadband connection on the market, and has the capacity for much more bandwidth than traditional Internet platforms. The speed that a fibre network provides — which can be up to 1,000 times faster than your run-of-the-mill DSL connection — is also a huge draw for businesses and industry; in places like Chattanooga, Tennessee, it’s been proven to give the local economy a boost that hasn’t been seen since the industrial revolution.

Is cable as good as fibre?

Unfortunately, cable just won’t cut it anymore. Unlike fibre, it has limited room for bandwidth and discourages efficient network traffic. Outdated platforms like DSL and copper wire would be a poor investment with minimal return. Fibre is future-proof; for years to come it will still be fast, durable, and highly efficient. Fibre’s promise of long-term speed and reliability is the draw for businesses to community-owned networks.

Who pays for municipal broadband?

A project like this must mean tax hikes, right? Think again! There are examples in Canada where taxes didn’t need to be raised to pay for broadband infrastructure. In Olds, Alberta, the profits from O-Net are projected to completely pay off the community’s loans from the government within 10 years, due to the booming business the network has created for the municipality. If just one third of the population subscribes to O-Net, the project pays for itself.

What is open access?

Municipalities who have laid broadband infrastructure will often sell their network capacity to ISPs, who in turn offer service to subscribers. Open access means that any provider, big or small, has the same opportunity to use a municipal broadband network. This includes indie providers, who sometimes face an uphill battle entering a market dominated by well-established companies.

Don’t telecom companies hate the idea of community-owned networks?

With open access community-owned networks, telecom companies have the chance to profit from infrastructure that they didn’t pay to build. It widens the service area of existing ISPs and allows them to reach an expanded customer base. Not to mention, it gives all companies — including indie providers — an equal shot to get in on the market. That’s a great deal!

What is 'Big Telecom'?

Big Telecom runs the show in Canada’s Internet market. Sometimes referred to as “incumbent providers”, they are the companies that sell the majority of Internet services to Canadians across the country. Household names like Bell, Telus, Rogers, Shaw, and more are part of Big Telecom, and collectively hold around 91% of the residential Internet market share.

What’s an indie provider?

As alternative options to Big Telecom, independent “indie” providers are smaller, third-party ISPs. They are an important part of healthy market competition in Canada, as they often encourage affordable prices from their larger competitors, resulting in better offerings for customers.

What is dark fibre?

Dark fibre is a name for fibre that is “unlit”, and therefore, not in use. Dark fibre infrastructure is in some cases already built, as companies place more cables than necessary to save on future expenses. Dark fibre can be used to the municipal broadband network’s advantage, as the utilization of existing infrastructure is a great way to lower the cost of a project.

Where do municipal broadband networks already exist?

Municipal broadband networks exist all over the world, in both urban and rural communities. Examples in Olds, Alberta and Sandy, Oregon illustrate how community-owned networks in North America can do wonders for the livelihoods of those who live there. Similar projects are even springing up thousands of miles away, in places like the Netherlands and Singapore.

Featured communities 

  • Olds, AB: The first to offer gigabit Internet 
  • Stratford, ON: Ontario's technological innovation hub
  • Coquitlam, BC: B.C.'s trail blazer
  • Eastern Ontario: A real, rural network