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Bell leveraging Olympic sponsorship

Wireless service now available in Whistler

By Andrew Mitchell

As part of the Bell’s $200 million sponsorship of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, the company has committed roughly $60 million to build a telecommunications infrastructure for the Games — a figure which they will likely go over as part of the company’s aggressive expansion into Western Canada.

As of December, some of that infrastructure is ready to be used in Whistler as Bell launched its own wireless cellular service. Bell’s fibre optic line should also be completed soon, and will be available to the community by 2008.

Last week Bell hosted Goldrush in Whistler, providing stakeholders with an update on Bell’s Olympic infrastructure and to celebrate the launch of their wireless service. According to Norm Silins, Bell’s general manager of Olympic Services, the complete infrastructure build is currently under budget and ahead of schedule.

There are four parts to the project, says Silins — the wireless network, the fibre optic network, the venues (including localized WiFi), and the community component where Bell will offer its regular services before and after the Games, leveraging their Olympic infrastructure.

The wireless component is the farthest along, with Bell offering cell service in Squamish as of June, and in Whistler as of December. An extension 10 km into the Callagahn Valley is also complete, aiding the ongoing construction of the Whistler Nordic Centre.

According to Silins the entire Sea to Sky Highway will be covered by Bell’s wireless service by 2008. So far 22 out of 27 towers are up and running, offering wireless voice and data transmissions via roughly twice the number of towers other companies have.

The wireless network is one of the most advanced in the country, says Silins, as required to meet Olympic requirements.

“Prior to (the Olympic build) we had an agreement to provide running coverage through Sea to Sky, but what we’ve done is build it deeper to provide an Olympic quality network,” said Silins. “The breadth of capacity we have is the best of what’s available, bar none.”

As part of its Olympic commitment, Bell will be providing cell phones to all Canadian athletes, as well as 7,000 handsets for Games operations. As well, Bell will be providing an additional 2,000 handsets that can function as walkie-talkies using the wireless infrastructure.

The majority of towers have been built alongside other development, such as hydro lines, to minimize their visual impact and keep costs lower. Silins would not specify just how much will be spent on the different components of the Games’ telecommunications network, maintaining that some of the money would have been spent anyway as part of Bell’s planned Western Canadian expansion. As a result he says it’s impossible to separate regular costs from additional Olympic costs.

As far as the fibre optic line goes, Silins says most of the infrastructure is complete, and some clients could be tapping into the fibre infrastructure by the spring. According to Silins, all of the telecommunications and Internet companies operating in Whistler and Sea to Sky have approached Bell to secure space on the fibre optic line. For example, Shaw plans to rent 12 of the 144 lines to enhance its cable and Internet products.

The fibre line itself is extraordinary in terms of its capacity — with the proper switches Silins says it could carry all of Canada’s Internet traffic. The reason for the capacity of the line is the use of high definition television — each high definition camera will require its own fibre line to transmit images and sound for distribution.

According to Silins, just 10 per cent of broadband traffic was high definition in Athens in 2004, compared to about 50 per cent at Torino in 2006. Beijing will be 60 to 70 per cent high definition, while the 2010 Games will be 100 per cent.

Following the Games, Silins predicts that the fibre network “will be a massive legacy for the community.”

For one thing, the line is protected under the railway tracks and will provide a redundant system in the event that existing lines go down — as happened twice this past winter.

As well, the capacity of the line will make it possible for local communities “to diversify their economies” by attracting more high tech businesses. Squamish, in particular, has shown interest in developing a local high tech industry and attracting new companies to town.

“The (fibre optic) line runs right by existing business parks in Squamish, and there’s also been a lot of interest from schools in the area,” said Silins, referring to Quest University and Capilano College. “There’s a unique economic development potential that was not available before we had a large capacity system to tap into.”

In terms of the Olympic and Paralympic venues, Silins confirmed that all five Sea to Sky venues — the sliding centre, Creekside, Callaghan Valley, athletes’ village, and broadcast centre — will be hooked up to the fibre-optic network for 2008, in time for test events. All Games venues will also have WiFi capability with a total of roughly 500 WiFi access points.

All told, Bell and VANOC have identified 480 different user groups that will be hooking into Bell’s network from venues in Whistler and Vancouver. That includes everyone from the Austria Ski Team to international media to VANOC officials.

On the community front, Silins says Bell always makes an effort to be involved in all of the communities it serves. Among other investments, Bell is providing $3 million for the Squamish-Lil’Wat Cultural Centre under construction in Whistler, and has contributed another $1 million to 2010 Legacies Now to provide $1,000 grants to up and coming athletes. As well, Bell just wrapped up its second year as a sponsor of the Whistler Film Festival.

According to Silins, Bell is not just fulfilling its Olympic obligations in Sea to Sky but is looking to leverage that network to become a major player in the corridor.

“In all the communities where we provide services, we want to win, to win your business,” he said. “Just like an athlete competing in the Olympics, it’s all about excellence. Any time we’re competing we want to be on top of the box.”

Silins says the network also reflects Bell’s transition from a phone company to a full-service Internet company that offers phone services through its network.