TINY STRANDS OF AWESOME

WHY EVERYONE IS TALKING ABOUT FIBRE OPTICS
Hailey Eisen
By Hailey Eisen . 16 min read
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BY THE YEAR 2000, Kansas City, MO was in the throes of decline. Though its population had peaked at half a million residents in 1970, by the early 2000s it had lost almost 60,000 people to cities whose futures seemed brighter.

On the Kansas side of the border the numbers were smaller, but the trend line pointed to the same conclusion—its population was in decline. One of those who decamped the so-called “Heart of America” was Matthew Marcus, a young technology entrepreneur who chose the more socially and environmentally-minded Boulder as the launching pad for a startup which sought to positively disrupt the charitable giving landscape.

Like many of his generation, Marcus left home in search of a more vibrant city. But when he heard a few years later that Google Fibre was coming to his hometown, something stirred in the 39-year-old. “I remember thinking, ‘that’s awesome, I need to be part of that!’”

When Kansas City threw its hat in the ring for the chance to be one of a handful of launch communities for the program, it had hoped access to superfast fibre optic technology might give it an edge in the drive to recruit digital natives and the startups they hoped to build.   Fast forward four years and “gigabit Internet” has helped transform Kansas City into an innovation breeding ground.

“I’ve visited a number of start-up cities, and like start-up businesses, there’s this unwritten race to get to the top,” Marcus explains. “In Kansas City we don’t have mountains or the ocean, those natural occurrences that Millenials tend to gravitate toward, so while we might be a cool city with lots of fun things to do, Google Fibre gave us an early entry into the race and an opportunity to innovate and test in order to see what works here before fibre is more broadly adopted.”

Marcus’ latest venture, the Kansas City Startup Village, began as a group of houses and small commercial buildings within a block of each other, all hosting burgeoning start-ups. Marcus’ building (a commercially zoned house that he’d inherited from his mother in 2010) was the first in the city to be connected to fibre. “Before that we were operating on this 4G wireless router using mobile data,” he recalls. “It would get so hot it would shut off and we’d have to wait for it to cool down before starting it up again. We were literally burning it up.” Fibre changed all that.

 

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The 411 on Fibre

Fibre-to-the-home (or premise) is an unlimited broadband technology, made up of flexible, transparent glass fibres slightly thicker than a strand of hair. These fibres transmit data as pulses of light, allowing large amounts of information to be sent directly to homes and businesses at close to the speed of light.

Fibre was first developed for communications purposes in the late 1960s and has more recently become the foundation of the world’s most cutting edge telecommunications system—Internet, cable TV and Internet protocol television networks, telephone (including cellular) networks, private business networks, and even data centre networks.

While most people still access telecommunications services via a copper wire or copper coaxial cable, telecommunications companies across the globe are investing billions to get ahead of the coming surge in data demand by deploying fibre directly into homes and business to ensure customers’ data needs will be met.

“Essentially, it’s really, really fast Internet,” Marcus says. “But it rallied the city together and forced us to think about how we could celebrate this coup and really take advantage of it.”

 

"The real play is when the entrepreneurs and innovators start coming up with ideas that will require immense amounts of bandwidth to operate. And while we may not know what those are yet, it won’t be long before we do."

With access to one gigabit of bandwidth per second, 15 entrepreneurs could occupy the same house, all work on their laptops at the same time, and experience no hitches or lags. “The first thing we tried to do when we got [this] fibre was break it,” says Marcus. “We wanted to see if we could consume so much bandwidth that when we did a speed test it would come back with zero megabits per second remaining.”

Working with his friend, a semi-professional gamer, Marcus set up a custom-built gaming computer to stream six HD YouTube videos simultaneously, while his friend played an online game and live-streamed it to Twitch.tv. But, no matter how hard they tried, the speed test still indicated they were getting at least 750 megabits per second. “It was incredible, we could only use a quarter of the bandwidth.”

While some might wonder why so much bandwidth is needed if there’s currently no way to consume it, Marcus and his fellow tech evangelists agree that the true power of fibre lies in its potential. “The real play is when the entrepreneurs and innovators start coming up with ideas that will require immense amounts of bandwidth to operate. And while we may not know what those are yet, it won’t be long before we do,” he says.

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Transforming Western Canada

In Western Canada, the most recent charge to bring fibre technology into the mainstream has been led by Vancouver’s Telus. In 2013 TELUS began deploying its fibre network across more than 65 communities in British Columbia, Alberta, and Eastern Quebec. In late 2015 the national telecommunications company announced it would invest $1-billion in each of Vancouver and Edmonton to roll out fibre-to-the-home citywide.

“We’re taking fibre to every home that grants us permission, giving residents and business the opportunity to access speeds of up to 150 megabits per second and, as demand increases, up to a gigabit per second or higher,” says Tony Geheran, Telus’ Executive Vice President of Broadband Networks.

 

TELUS Fibre Communities

 

Both Vancouver and Edmonton recognized the inherent value of fibre to propel their cities into the future while creating an ecosystem that promotes economic diversity—especially important in regions that have typically relied on extracting resources from the ground.

 

"With less than 10 percent of North Americans currently linked to a fibre optic network, Telus is providing a distinct advantage to these cities and their citizens."

Provincial and municipal leaders have expressed enthusiasm about the economic and social benefits the cities will realize as a result of Telus’ investment. From attracting new tech companies and start-ups as Kansas City has, to retaining specialized knowledge workers, increasing property values, and putting both cities on the map internationally, Telus fibre offers benefits that can be realized immediately, and long into the future.

“The feedback here has been phenomenal,” says Wendy Gnenz, Director of Corporate and Departmental Initiatives with the City of Edmonton, where the fibre rollout is part of an Open City initiative. “We’re very connected globally and have had delegations from cities around the world visiting us to find out more about Open City and fibre optic roll-out—it’s getting lots of attention.” Edmonton had the policy infrastructure in place to welcome investment and recognized the value Telus would bring in offering nearly ubiquitous access to the fastest and most reliable Internet services.

“Telus is committed to better connecting citizens by linking homes, hospitals, clinics, doctors, pharmacists, businesses, schools, libraries and municipal governments directly to our fibre optic network, bringing advanced broadband services and unparalleled security to the entire connected community,” says Geheran. “With less than 10 per cent of North Americans currently linked to a fibre optic network, Telus is providing a distinct advantage to these cities and their citizens who will ultimately have superior access to economic growth opportunities, critical healthcare solutions, world-class education programs, and exciting social applications to enhance their fast-moving lifestyles.”

"Only fibre-to-the-home can meet the enormous demand for bandwidth while delivering next-generation services."

In the healthcare space, a future enabled by fibre will give Canadians access to leading-edge digital healthcare including, among other things, virtual, 4K physician “visits,” digitally tracked and documented hospital stays supported by wearable technologies and sensors, and in-home Internet-of-Things innovations aimed at monitoring and supporting the well-being of an aging population. Read more about the future of healthcare in Canada.

Canada’s education system is also expected to see dramatic shifts, as students are offered access to resources that extend far beyond the physical classroom. The future will see virtual reality (VR) learning environments, teleconference-enabled access to international academics, cross-country collaboration, virtual field trips, and much more. Read more about the future of fibre-enabled education.

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The Unquenchable Demand for Data

There’s no question that the demand for Internet bandwidth is increasing rapidly. Gone are the days of one and two screen households. Currently, the average North American household has approximately 5 connected devices—including tablets, PCs, notebooks, smartphones, and televisions. That number continues to rise and, according to one global forecast, worldwide numbers are expected to eclipse 4.7 connected devices per person by 2020.

 

More screens translate into more data. According to global networking leader Cisco, by 2016 annual global IP traffic will surpass a zettabyte (1000 exabytes). By 2019 that number is set to double, equating to 64 times the data the internet data traffic volume in 2005. Indeed, by then every month 5 million years’ worth of new video footage will cross global IP networks.

 

When electricity was first introduced in the late 1800s, no one could have predicted how much power we’d require to fuel our daily lives. So it is with Internet data.

 

“As our needs continue to increase, you don’t want bandwidth to be the limiting factor when it comes to creativity and innovation,” says Heather Gold, President and CEO of FTTH Council Americas, the organization that represents and educates companies that build and operate fibre-to-the-home networks. “Only fibre-to-the-home can meet the enormous demand for bandwidth while delivering next-generation services.”

"Without the foundational capacity of fibre broadband we just can’t compete on a global scale."
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Creating the World’s Most Vibrant Digital Economy: Fibre in Canada

The advantages of being early on the fibre-optic adoption curve are not just reserved for outlier cities and the people and businesses who call them home. At stake today are future top country rankings in what has been dubbed the global digital economy. According to many domestic technology leaders, Canada’s economic future, and that of its fellow G7 members, will be closely linked to its ability to foster a vibrant digital economy.

 

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“At the end of the day Canada wins or loses based on whether or not we’re as productive as the nations we’re competing with,” says Mark Zimmerman, Senior Advisor and Chief Information Officer of MaRs Discovery District in Toronto. “As of right now, per hour worked, we’re less productive than the other guys and we’re losing that competitive battle.”

 

According to Zimmerman, two of the primary reasons for this competitive lag are unwillingness to adopt new technologies and the lack of availability of relevant infrastructure. Investment in technological innovation and infrastructure are critically necessary to boost the country’s productivity.

 

What is working in Canada’s favour, Zimmerman says, is the generational shift in many enterprises that is rapidly bringing younger, more technologically sophisticated individuals into decision-making roles. We’re also seeing a narrowing of the infrastructure gap. While, Canada isn’t yet a world leader in broadband deployment, he says, it is quickly catching up thanks to the investment of Telus and others.

 

The shift from copper’s megabits to fibre’s gigabit speeds opens up a whole new set of possibilities for innovation, some of which we can already see coming, Zimmerman believes. We’re already starting to see or hear about innovations including smart homes with Internet-enabled appliances such as fridges, stoves, and thermostats; 4K televisions, in-home virtual reality systems, and next generation wearables; and sensor-enabled cars, roads, bridges, and parking lots. Yet other changes—what Zimmerman calls the most exciting things—are those that can’t yet be predicted. “Broadband network connectivity is one of these remarkable regenerative technologies upon which can be built all kinds of innovation. In that sense, it’s foundational, like electricity.”

"At the end of the day Canada wins or loses based on whether or not we’re as productive as the nations we’re competing with"

And much like electricity did when it came along, fibre has nearly limitless potential to transform the way people live and work.

 

For Telus, the importance of Canada’s place in the global economy looms large in its investment thesis, and underpins its belief that regulators need to adopt a light touch to allow innovation to flourish. “While Canada has historically been a resource-based economy, we have recently witnessed first-hand the perils of being overly reliant on resources for our long-term economic growth, development and stability.  We need to diversify our economy, and that means we need to have the right technology infrastructure to attract knowledge-based workers and business,” says Ted Woodhead, Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs at Telus. “Without the foundational capacity of fibre broadband we just can’t compete on a global scale.”

 

With the right climate of government and regulatory support for broadband deployment, both Zimmerman and Woodhead believe Canada could be well positioned to lead the next wave of the digital economic development.

 

“It’s really important for Canada to have the infrastructure in place for entrepreneurs to develop upon, “Zimmerman concludes. “We want to get this stuff deployed as broadly and quickly as we can, because the value only gets unlocked when the network is lit up.”

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Case Study

How will Fibre change the way we live in the Optic Age

With essentially unlimited bandwidth and computing power that’s expanding exponentially, Canadian Futurist, Richard Worzel explains that the only limiting factor to determine what actually gets developed in the Optic Age is imagination. “It’s not what you can imagine or what I can imagine, but what humanity as a whole can imagine that will determine what our future looks like.”

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Case Study

The Power of Fibre to Transform Education

Creating equal access to education has long proven to be one of the most intractable problems in both the developing and the developed world. While governments, social scientists, and education entrepreneurs have made strides in closing some gaps, technology is poised to help close the gap more.

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