#ConnectTO: an ill-informed, misguided approach

The story is told of French scientists digging 100 meters beneath the streets of Paris and finding traces of copper dating back 1,000 years. The French came to the conclusion that their ancestors had a telephone network all those centuries ago.

Not to be outdone, English scientists excavated near the Tower of London to a depth of 200 meters, found ancient broken glass, and shortly afterwards, reported “English archeologists find traces of 2,000-year-old fiber-optic cable.” They concluded that their ancestors had an advanced high-tech digital communications network a thousand years earlier than the French.”

A week later, Israeli newspapers reported “After digging as deep as 500 meters in a Jerusalem marketplace, scientists found absolutely nothing. They concluded that 5,000 years ago, the ancient tribes of Judea were already using wireless communications technology.”

I thought of that story when I read a long overdue update on Toronto’s ConnectTO project.

In a report going to Toronto’s Executive Committee, we learn that 45 groups took a look at the City’s request for proposals to build more fibre in one of the world’s most connected cities.

Not a single bid was received.

Not one.

Bell wrote a letter [pdf, 260KB] to the Executive Committee, pointing out that Bell already provides fibre based service to 41 out of the 42 buildings that were in Phase 1 of the City’s planned broadband network. Of those 41 buildings, 24 of them (with 4,099 suites) already have the latest fibre to the suite; the other 17 (with 2,218 suites) have fibre to the node. Bell says that “The majority of the buildings not fully upgraded to FTTS are privately owned and any delays are due to delays in obtaining approvals from the property owner for upgrades to our services.”

And in the one building that does not have access to Bell’s fibre services, Bell says there is already access to high-speed broadband services from at least one other provider.

One would think that the City would have learned from this exercise that the issue is not one of establishing connectivity, but in driving increased adoption.

But, no. Like the misguided archaeologists in my story, the Report [pdf, 784 KB] to Executive Committee draws the wrong conclusions:

the following are nRFP lessons staff learned that helped inform the proposed way forward for ConnectTO:

  1. There is little to no incentive for service providers to partner with the City in the absence of a commitment of capital or serviceable fibre infrastructure;
  2. Dominant carriers own and control most last mile infrastructure. The capital investment required for new infrastructure by non-dominant carriers is significant and can’t be recouped through the low-cost subscriber pricing targets outlined;
  3. The City’s focus on older buildings further limits partnership opportunities. The City’s vulnerable populations tend to reside in older facilities where cabling to them is largely legacy infrastructure owned by dominant carriers;
  4. The addition of more City-owned fibre and duct in or near Neighbourhood Improvement Areas would provide more opportunities to engage non-dominant service providers, though older facility access may still pose a challenge.

Come on, now.

Isn’t it really obvious that the RFP failed because, as the report itself acknowledges, Toronto is already incredibly well served by competitive broadband networks. The buildings targeted under Phase 1 were already completed by the private sector, without the need for public funding or involvement.

It is worth noting that Beanfield also submitted a letter to the City [pdf, 45KB], observing that “A public sector entity is simply not setup to be an effective or efficient telecom company.”

I understand that the city wants to be seen helping disadvantaged citizens get online.

We all want that. Really.

It is why I have been writing about programs to target broadband for low-income Canadians for nearly 15 years.

In urban settings, especially in the City of Toronto, the problem isn’t one of connectivity; it is getting people to make use of connectivity that is already at their doorstep.

That is a social service and education problem, not one that should be headed by the City’s Information Technology chief.

Despite what may be the best intentions, ConnectTO is following an ill-informed, misguided approach.

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