I was drafted into doing a presentation this coming week at the Summit of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region in Vancouver.
I’m to talk about the social and economic “payback” for public investment in broadband internet service to rural communities.
I seemed a natural fit for the subject, since I have an IT history that is almost exactly contemporaneous with the internet in the Yukon, and I have been at least a small player in most of the dealings that lead to high-speed internet access across the territory.
In the course of doing my research for this brief little speech, I was struck by the huge contrast between then and now, and by how much we were, without knowing it or thinking about it, then, giving a big boost to quality of life in the rural communities.
We have come a long way since the morning of January 5, 1995, when the YukonNet Operating Society opened its doors for internet business in Whitehorse.
What we had for sale, in those days, was a bank of 20 14.4 KBps modems, attached to a 56 KBps internet gateway service.
To use that service, you had to buy internet time in blocks of 40 hours at a time, and you paid $1.50 per hour — so, the basic deal was $60 a month, for a little over one hour a day of internet.
And, if you happened to live outside of Whitehorse, you had to foot the long distance bill for the call in to our Whitehorse modems.
That might sound like a pretty steep price, in a world where you now get always-on, time-unlimited high speed ADSL or cable modem access for about the same price — but, believe me, we were a genuine not-for-profit organization, and we were not gouging, just covering costs.
Internet in those days was just inherently slow, expensive and limited to “big town” markets.
Within a few years, working with YTG and Northwestel, we had internet dial up access (often still the old, slow 14.4 kind) in 10 communities outside of Whitehorse, most connected to 56 KB feeds that in turn connected to first 128 KBps, then 256 KBps and finally T-1 (1.5 MB) gateway feeds to the internet.
By the end of 2001, the same trio of forces — YTG, Northwestel, and YukonNet (along with the other regional ISPs that had come to life since then) — had put a deal together to get high speed ADSL access to the doorstep of eight of those original ten rural communities.
Only Ross River and Faro, because of limitations in service delivery infrastructure, were still stuck with dial up.
By the end of 2004, the threesome had combined forces again to get those two communities up and running with high speed access, and furthermore yet more on line — places like Stewart Crossing, Burwash and even Rancheria.
All of this cost money, both to build and to maintain. So where is the payback?
This is what I am going to say in Vancouver.
The payback is 476 businesses in rural Yukon, 277 of which have e-mail addresses, and 106 have websites.
The payback is 17 video conferencing sites in 13 Yukon communities for Health and Social Services (some communities with several, some, still, with none), which allow for things like conferences about prenatal health or speech therapy.
The payback is online training for rural nurses from the University of Alberta or Vancouver General Hospital.
The payback is video conferencing, accredited classes in Dawson City’s Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture, delivered by the prestigious Ontario College of Arts and Design, in art history.
That is just the start of the list of the paybacks.
If you throw in the activities at Yukon College and the department of Education, it gets harder and harder to say you can quantify the paybacks.
Not because there aren’t any, but because there are so many, and we have not developed the tools to really quantify them.
Yes, there was a considerable investment from the public purse to make all this possible in the Yukon, but when it comes to internet, I still believe, we did not do it perfectly but we did do it right.
We had a strong commitment from local government (which had its own needs, and was open to the idea of meeting the needs of others), together with some spirit of enterprise from the local telco, and the commitment of some citizen-action groups, which could step up and champion the effort of getting “reasonable, affordable internet access to all Yukon communities.”
(That, by the way, is a shameless plug for the mission statement of the now-defunct YukonNet group.)
It worked. The Yukon is today, if not a perfect broadband environment, the envy of most other jurisdictions.
By accident, we got the formula right: government, telco, citizen action.
It proved to be a very powerful formula, because it included all the people interested in economic, educational and social payback.
It is a shame we cannot quantify it better, but I don’t think anyone who knew the Yukon in January 1995 would say that life in the rural communities is not better in many ways than it was before the internet got there.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.