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Lighting up Sea to Sky

Olympic fibre network could help lure high tech industry
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In less than six months the Olympics and Paralympics will be in the history books and the question of how to best use the legacies of the Games will take centre stage.

Some legacies are more obvious than others. The cross-country ski trails at Whistler Olympic Park are already being put through the paces by a large number of Nordic skiers from Vancouver to Pemberton, the Olympic downhill runs will be used by skiers and snowboarders like always and the Whistler Sliding Centre could double as a tourist thrill-ride as well as a training centre for athletes. In September, over 1,000 Whistler residents will move into their new homes at Cheakamus Crossing and the sports centre there will be open to visiting teams and the public. The highway will function as it always has, only better, and the Medals Plaza will become a community amenity and gathering spot.

Less obvious is what will become of the massive communications legacy of the Games, which includes everything from wireless installations to cell towers and especially the fibre optic network installed by Bell Canada - part of their $200 million sponsorship commitment to the Games.

Not only will the line increase competition and choice for Sea to Sky residents, it could also provide a competitive edge to luring high tech industries to the corridor. While networks in some urban areas are struggling to meet demands at peak hours, the addition of Bell Canada's fibre line to sparsely populated Sea to Sky provides so much extra capacity to the region and by so many degrees of magnitude over what's currently available, that high tech firms are bound to take notice.

 

It's getting crowded out there...

A few years ago senior Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens became an international laughing stock when he proclaimed that "the Internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand, those tubes can be filled. And if they are filled, when you put your message in it gets in line, and it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of materials..."

My personal favourite mockery is the DJ Ted Stevens Remix: "A Series of Tubes" on YouTube.com, although you don't have to look very hard to find inspired netizen efforts to mock an 83-year-old man's attempt to explain why it took several hours for a Senate aide to send an e-mail - he adorably called it an "Internet" - to Senator Stevens's computer one room over.

The Senator was ostensibly making a point in the larger battle over Net Neutrality, and how bandwidth is ultimately a limited resource that can be used up. More likely Mr. Stevens was actually speaking on behalf of telecom companies who have been lobbying the government for the ability to charge web hosts and users for how much bandwidth they use instead of the usual monthly flat rate for service - something groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation claim is tantamount to censorship, and that will make it almost impossible for smaller websites, commercial or otherwise, to reach a wider audience. Under Ted Stevens's scenario the EFF believes only the largest companies with the deepest pockets would be able to afford bandwidth, and would dominate the once democratic online world.

Here's why all this matters:

As bungling as Senator Stevens's description of the Internet might have been, there is no question that we have a problem. Bandwidth is, and has always been, a limiting factor for the Internet and how much data can be sent, and how quickly, from one terminal to another.

There are many things that limit bandwidth. Lack of a high-speed infrastructure is one limitation and the reason why Internet connections in South Korea are on average 10 times faster than connections in the U.S. right now. Hardware capabilities aren't uniform across networks, such as the switches that direct the flow of traffic from place to place, or that convert photons and microwaves to electrons and back again.

Bottlenecks were also deliberately built into the network of interconnected servers that blanket the planet like a giant spider web, sometimes to control traffic and sometimes to censor content where cables hit borders. Then there is all the different server software out there that moves and translates information, as well as all the evolving standards and protocols that dictate how information is packaged. On top of that, all the modems, routers, wires and wireless signals we use to send data back and forth also have a finite capacity for transferring data.

And then there's traffic. Sometimes the movement of data can appear to be instant and other times it lags.

Peak hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., are generally the slowest times for networks as millions of work computers log onto the Internet, but evenings are becoming busier as well as people spend more time on the web streaming movies and television shows, playing online games, or pursuing other online interests. In fact, there's evidence that the after-school and after-work period will surpass work needs for the Internet, as more people are using the web to save money on long distance phone calls through services like Skype, or using messaging programs like Microsoft Live Messenger for video chats.

Web 2.0, where people use the web for applications and for storing and sharing all kinds of data is also becoming more popular. Then we have "cloud computing," whereby individuals and businesses are storing more and more of their data and applications online so they can be accessed from anywhere.

Even e-mails, which are relatively small in terms of size, are a burden. Roughly 97 spam e-mails are sent for every three legitimate messages that get through.

All this puts more pressure on the amount of bandwidth that's available. Bandwidth is growing all the time as telecommunications companies upgrade their networks and add more lines, servers and switches, but they can't keep up - demand for bandwidth is growing faster than the supply.

Some researchers are warning that we're running out of bandwidth, largely as a result of video streaming websites like YouTube, Hulu and iPlayer, torrent downloads of movies and music, online gaming and other forms of entertainment.

Even basic web browsing is becoming more bandwidth-intensive as sites fall over themselves to add more rich content like Flash animations and Java scripting to improve the user experience. My Opera browser tells me how many "elements" are on each page that I view, and even simple sites like the MSN.ca portal can have over 70 elements - windows, ads, navigation bars, java sripts, CSS style sheets, images and so on. CNN.com has 156 elements to download.

Unless capacity is increased or use is restricted - possibly by pay-as-you-go billing - some experts warn that we could soon experience Internet "brownouts" where services become unavailable or the experience is slowed down considerably.

According to U.K.-based Times, YouTube alone generates more traffic every day than the entire Internet generated in the year 2000. Traffic is growing by around 60 per cent a year, while the network itself is expanding in single digits in most countries.

Some Internet services used to try to limit the amount of bandwidth customers could use in a month, and would charge customers for going over the limit. However, with so much competition out there most companies generally look the other way for home connections, unless bandwidth usage is disproportionately high. Businesses usually pay a higher rate to use more bandwidth, as so do all the people who have next generation phones and data plans to be able to access the Internet.

The trillion dollar question is whether we will one day reach capacity, a point where the web is hopelessly gridlocked. It's a question that many have tried to answer and it's a tough one because capacity is increasing all the time, while data is being streamlined by tweaking software.

But while the capacity of the Internet continues to expand, so do our requirements for bandwidth.

A little over a year ago, in April 2008, U.S. telecommunications giant AT&T predicted that the Internet would reach capacity by 2010, filling that series of tubes that Senator Stevens told us about. They said demand would increase 50-fold by 2015, and that companies would require hundreds of billions of dollars of new Internet infrastructure to keep up to demands.

Many have called B.S. on this, claiming that AT&T is exaggerating the problem to make its case against net neutrality and for a shift to a model where they can charge web hosts and users for the bandwidth they use.

While it's doubtful the entire Internet will one day become so clogged with e-mails, twitters, streaming video and audio, Web 2.0 applications, torrents, etc. that it will shut down entirely, something, somewhere has to give.

Which brings us back to Olympic legacies. Thanks to the 2010 Games the Sea to Sky corridor from Vancouver to Whistler will boast one of the fastest, highest bandwidth networks in Canada, way out of scale for the population of the area. With the proper plan and guidance, that spare capacity represents opportunity.

 

The optics of fibre

Although some researchers have succeeded in bending the rules slightly, the general rule of physics holds that nothing since the big bang is faster than the speed of light.

Fibre optic cables are for the most part made of silica glass strands that are covered with a reflective coating that keeps light photons in. They allow for the transfer of huge amounts of data at incredibly high speeds and over long distances, with next to no degeneration of the signal. No heat is produced and fibres don't wear out over time like their copper cousins. Fibres are also thinner and more can be bundled together in a given diametre of cable. Power requirements are also minimal compared to metal wiring.

Copper wires are slower, and the signal has to be boosted periodically because it can degrade over long distances. While copper is the best conductor of electricity next to silver, there is still resistance in the wire that produces heat, which in turn wears the wire out faster.

Copper wires are also more susceptible to electromagnetic interference, and have to be shielded by thick insulation.

Copper still has a few advantages, however. For one, the signal doesn't have to be translated from photon to electron and back again, and all modems, computers, etc. use copper wiring architecture. It's also cheaper to install and replace, and is easier to splice in the result that a line is severed.

There are dozens of technical papers on the Internet comparing speeds, just as there are so many different types of fibre and metal wires that a true comparison is difficult.

A coaxial cable typically has a maximum data transfer rate of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps), while a single fibre strand carries about 12.5 times as much information, or 1.25 Gbps in a typical application. However, this is definitely not the limit. With the proper hardware and software at both ends that rate can be boosted to 10 Gbps to 40 Gpbs. In 2007, researchers at Alcatel/Lucent set a new world record for fastest data transfer by sending 25.6 terabits (a terabit is a thousand gigabits) per second over a single fibre strand. That's about 25,600 times more data per second than a coaxial cable can send.

Fibres can also carry several different channels of information simultaneously by using different wavelengths of light, which in turn can allow a fibre wire to carry television, Internet, telephone and other applications at the same time.

Whistler is already connected to Vancouver by fibre, since Telus expanded its line from Squamish in 1999.

Whistler has also been connected to the city for the past three years by a series of microwave towers maintained Tranzeo Wireless. Although the investment was considerable, the company wanted to use Whistler to showcase a telecommunications technology that can be used to provide broadband Internet to remote areas with a limited amount of infrastructure.

That service came in handy in December 2006 when highway work accidentally severed Telus's fibre line.

But the biggest addition to the network won't be available until the Games wrap up. Last year Bell Canada completed a 120 km fibre optic cable installation connecting all of the 2010 Olympic venues. The line is made up of 144 individual fibres which are together capable of performing 40,000 data transmissions per second. Combined, it's enough to carry all of the telephone traffic for Canada with room to spare.

The main reason for the line, unprecedented even for an Olympic Games, is the adoption of high definition video, as well as services that will allow people to watch the Games live over the Internet. Bell is billing the 2010 broadcast as the first all-IP (Internet Protocol) Games in history.

The line will be used to transmit HD video from Games venues to the city, where it will be distributed around the world by satellite, fibre and cable. The capacity allows for several HD broadcasts at the same time with capacity left over for other Games-related data - 15,000 network users all told in 130 Games venues (including 21 official competition venues, media centres and other sites like warehouses, logistics centres, accreditation centres, and volunteer centres).

Most of that capacity is reserved for the Games although Bell has already made a deal to lease a dozen fibres to Shaw to supplement its existing network and Telus has reached an agreement to rent capacity in the result of another outage.

With most of the Bell fibre secured under railbeds and roads, the backbone of the Bell line is extremely tough and immune to routine accidents and weather. There are stations along the way where the signal can be redirected into Squamish, up into the Callaghan Valley, to the athletes' village, to the Alpine skiing venue on Whistler Mountain, to the media centre in the village and to the Whistler Sliding Centre on Blackcomb. Every hub can be expanded to include sub-hubs as well, growing like a spider web into businesses and perhaps one day, homes as well.

After the Games, Bell plans to use the line for commercial purposes and will offer its phone, cell phone, wireless and Internet services through Sea to Sky.

Norm Silins, the general manager of Olympic venues for Bell, says the priority of the fibre line is to produce the best Games communication scenario possible. After that, they'll look at other opportunities.

"Each strand (of fibre) can carry 40,000 data transmissions per second," he explained. "With 144 fibres that adds up.

"Right now we have a laser sharp focus on delivering flawlessly for the Games, but we're also mindful of the legacy we're leaving for the community."

Silins says that the plan is to work with other carriers in the region, like Shaw and Telus, that actually deliver the Internet into homes and businesses. As well, they are interested in working with larger customers.

"There is the potential for multimedia conventions, where there wasn't that opportunity before. Squamish could rise as an expert in call centre management going forward as well. That's really up for the communities to decide, but what we have provided is extraordinary bandwidth capacity."

How much exactly - compared to how much capacity the current network in Sea to Sky offers?

"Certainly about 100 times the capacity," Silins answered, adding that it could be higher as the hardware along the line is upgraded. "It depends on what you put on each and every strand," he said. "You take the wavelength within a strand and add a multiplexer to broaden the capacity, but for now we're not going to be doing that because we feel there is enough capacity. But as things progress we can certainly add more capacity by different electronics that convert data directly to wavelengths of light."

As for what Bell's presence will be in Whistler following the Games, Silins says the company is already making inroads.

"Right now we offer our mobility services, we have built massive mobility capacity with 27 additional wireless sites from Vancouver to Whistler in the Sea to Sky corridor with seamless coverage all the way through. From a wired point-of-view, we'll focus on business customers... and in addition we also have Bell television service, which is a satellite service. That will continue to go forward and things could change, but right now our wired focus will really be on the business markets initially."

Silins says Bell has already landed customers in Whistler and Squamish, although he wouldn't say who or where. He did say that there was a redundant loop built into the service to guard against outages and that it's a simple matter to create connections anywhere along those loops.

As for Bell's claims that this will be the first all IP Olympics, Silins says that's completely true.

"Simply said, every broadcast, every image, every commentator, every timing and scoring result, every newspaper story written will travel on that network," he said. "All high definition, all media reports. We expect that the 2010 Games will be all HD broadcast, which is certainly something we're very proud of."

Bell is also involved directly with the athletes, providing them with phones they can use to call coaches, trainers, family and others, while also taking pictures of events like the opening ceremonies. "Imagine the athletes enter the opening ceremonies, taking pictures of their fellow athletes and the spectacle and the field of play. They can blog, they can Twitter. They can send images to family across the country. All of that is being provided," said Silins.

Bell's high tech contributions will be in athletes' villages, media centres and broadcast studios, but you might also find fragments in experimental waxes, speed suits, stone grinders and binders. To date, Bell has contributed $15 million directly to the Own The Podium program, with much of that going towards the Top Secret project to give Canadian athletes a technological and mental edge during the 2010 Winter Games. Most of the Top Secret innovations are still being rolled out, but they could include everything from changes to sport nutrition and training techniques, to the suits athletes wear, to the tuning of skates, skis and snowboards.

 

High tech in the mountains

Whistler has a small high-tech industry, believe it or not, mostly centred around Function Junction. Most work to support local businesses and the tourism industry, but some provide services on a global scale. The Internet allows some companies to locate anywhere, and for the lifestyle angle some of those companies choose Whistler.

Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed is cautious about Whistler's potential to build a high-tech industry based on Bell's fibre optic line and the capacity available.

"It raises an important consideration as we get into the review of Whistler 2020," said Melamed. "People have already made a connection between the infrastructure (the fibre line) could support but it also raises the issue of housing... but personally I would say go slow and use caution," he said. "I would hate to be taken back to that place where we've been the last 20 years where there is never enough resident housing. It will be nice to experience life with an abundance of housing at Rainbow and Cheakamus Crossing, for the short-term anyway."

Building a high tech industry could help Whistler through the ups and downs of the tourism industry, but Melamed says it creates new demands for infrastructure at a time when Function Junction's role as an industrial park is being reviewed, in addition to creating new demands for affordable housing. If tech workers displace tourism workers it could negatively impact the resort.

Instead, he would support the development of a high tech industry down the highway in Squamish, where there is ample housing, lots of room in the industrial park, two universities, and a need for economic diversity as the community shifts from forestry to other economic drivers.

That said, Melamed says there is no law against companies coming to Whistler.

"The reality is we do have that kind of industry here," he said. "We had Paradata, which opened and created a successful high tech business here without an initiative by the municipal government. There are no regulations or bylaws that say businesses can't come and operate in Whistler.

"If they do decide to come here I hope it's with eyes open and an understanding of what their needs and limitations are, and that they're respectful of the community's adopted vision as well as the fact that tourism is our core business."

Paradata set up shop in Whistler for one reason only and that was to attract programmers, IT experts and others to a place with the added inducement of living a unique mountain lifestyle. In a competitive market for skilled workers it proved to be a huge advantage for Paradata.

The company developed credit card transaction authorization and certification software and protocols for banks and credit card companies. In 2006 Paradata was purchased by California-based Payment Processing Incorporated.

"It was really positive, looking back (locating Paradata in Whistler) was definitely the right thing to do," said Shannon Susko, who founded the company in 1996.

Paradata recognized early on that housing could be an issue and took steps to secure accommodation from landlords around town for staff as the company grew. "Any firms that come to town, including Paradata, will be fine as long as they plan ahead and know the situation," she said. "You have to take care of that detail in order to provide a path for the company to grow... in a great place that attracts good people."

Susko says the fibre line will prove a huge draw to high tech companies and start-ups in the future.

"I definitely believe that," she said. "My reasoning is that when we originally started Paradata we were in Squamish, and we pulled connectivity off of lines going to Whistler. Most people would marvel at the cost, which we split with another company. We were paying $10,000 a month to get half of a T1 (Tier One) connection.

"Once we moved up to Whistler we got great connectivity, but no redundancy whatsoever, so we had to move our main technical operations out of Whistler to Vancouver. We kept our main office here, but had all our technical operations in the city.

"Now, the fibre line gives companies two options and redundancy. If I were to build another big company in Whistler I would engage both (fibre) lines because you would have complete redundancy. Before, when there was one provider, if it went down you would lose your connectivity."

Susko has started another company called Subservia, which provides automated compliance solutions to brokerage firms. While it represents another financial niche for Susko, like Paradata, she said the opportunity fell on her lap. She has a small office in Whistler, but the company's tech service is in Vancouver because bank regulations specify that the company's data must be housed at a bank-certified data centre.

However, the fibre option makes it more likely that she could move a customer support operation to Whistler or Squamish than in the past, with fast connections and redundancy readily available.

"That's not something you could have said even a few years ago," she said.

 

Squamish weighs in

Squamish Mayor Greg Gardner says that high technology is one of the sectors that the community is actively looking to attract and there has been discussion over creating technology parks and knowledge-based industries in plans to develop the industrial park and waterfront area. The addition of the Bell fibre line will make it easier.

"There are certainly advantages for certain types of business, like when a business has different satellite operations that are all linked together," said Gardner. "We have the space for that kind of satellite operation and for start-ups, and the location is attractive for the kinds of employees that these businesses are looking for. Another thing that businesses will find attractive is the high volume of data transfer that the fibre line provides on a secure basis. We think that will be a real benefit to the community moving forward in terms of attracting business and retaining business."

Physically, Squamish is advancing the fibre network within the community by laying conduits into the ground in conjunction with construction projects like the corridor trail that is running the length of the town. That conduit will allow the fibre network to reach into different areas securely without requiring expensive infrastructure upgrades, or hanging more wires from poles that can be damaged.

"It's definitely one of our priorities to get a fibre conduit into the downtown core - it hasn't happened yet but it's high on our list of priorities," Gardner said. "It's also something we consider when any application for development comes before council that involves public lands or roadways.

"We're doing it to make our own businesses more efficient, and to attract other businesses to the community. Our council is focused on growing the business segment of our community, which has been in transition since this was a forestry town and we all believe that Squamish has a lot to offer even before this opportunity with the fibre line presented itself."

Gardner doesn't think it will be too hard to sell Squamish to companies, given Squamish's designation as the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada and the affordability of housing compared to Vancouver and other markets.

 

Of all the legacies of the Games, the fibre line is the one that most people will probably use. Some may go down the bobsled track on a tour, and many more will use the trails at Whistler Olympic Park. But one of the biggest legacies is the one that's behind the scenes, buried under rail beds and sunk into underground conduits.

And while it may be a struggle to keep some legacies financially sustainable, the fibre line could eventually pay for itself while creating businesses and jobs in Sea to Sky.

Whistler is on the verge of becoming one of the most wired towns on earth, way out of proportion for its size and designation as a destination resort. Our little stop on the information highway has become a Formula One track.

That's a legacy worth celebrating.

 

 




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