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Small town goes big-time with Canada's fastest Internet service
Thanks in part to an online research study that reaffirmed the viability of a rather bold initiative, Canada's first-ever 100% fibre optic Internet service (a.k.a. Fibre-to-the-Premises [FTTP]) was officially launched this past month.
This momentuous event did not occur in a major urban center, but rather in a small Alberta town about 90 miles north of Calgary. And the country’s fastest-ever Internet connection (plus optional TV and phone services) will be delivered not by one of the big telcos but instead by a community-owned non-profit.

“This was an exciting research project to be part of,” says zinc tank president Brian F. Singh. “The idea of building its own fibre optic network was pretty ambitious for such a small community, and it was a very expensive undertaking. They needed reliable proof that it was going to be achievable, and that’s what the market research gave them.”

A long and winding road
The beginnings of this venture stretch back ten years, when Olds’ civic and business leaders were looking for ways to attract – or retain – the industries and businesses whose jobs sustain the local economy. Tasked with meeting this challenge, a technical committee was formed by the Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development (OICRD), a partnership comprising the town of Olds, Alberta; Olds College; the Olds and District Chamber of Commerce; and the Olds Agricultural Society. The committee zeroed in on high-speed Internet to be its star attraction.

Seven years and some $10 million dollars later, the fibre optic network infrastructure was well along its way; operating from the town’s library, the service featured 15 high-speed terminals for use by residents. But when the major Internet service providers all declined to use the new network, it became apparent that the community would have to not only manage the network but also offer the services. Once again, the committee was facing uncharted territory - and an additional $3 million in equipment costs.

“Overall, there is the potential for a solid business base to proceed.”*

To determine how – or if – taking on the new role of Internet service provider was going to work, the OICRD commissioned a comprehensive online market research study.

The research was conducted over a three-week period in late 2010 by Zinc Research (now operating as zinc tank) in conjunction with Calgary-based Twist Marketing. The study was designed to test the receptivity of businesses and also to gauge the interest of the community’s own residents; while the consumer-side market for the service was small, the OICRD considered that the community’s buy-in was essential.

“The goal of this research,” Brian Singh explained, “was to provide hard data on the kind of uptake rate the OICRD could expect to achieve on start-up. We needed to demonstrate the cost thresholds that businesses would support. We also wanted to know what residents were already paying for the available services, and how much more they would be willing to pay for a higher level of service. And in overall terms, we had to be clear about people’s understanding and interest in this new technology, both for consumers and businesses, because in both cases early adoption was going to be critical.”

Framing its questions around key criteria like these, the data was able to conclude that a 30% take-up target was within reach. The data also provided rich insights on usage analysis and contributed to the design of service offerings, bundling options and pricing strategy. “When a study is thoughtfully designed, it can answer many questions and deliver strategic insights for a long time,” Singh added.

For more on the launch of O-NET, the OICRD’s non-profit service provider, click here for the feature article published by CBC News.

* OICRD research report, October 2010