Eeyou Communications Network wants ultra-high-speed internet for everyone in Eeyou Istchee

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Alfred Loon thinks it’s time for your house to get connected to the 21st century. The President of the Eeyou Communications Network (ECN) and Director of Economics and Sustainable Development for the Cree Nation Government, Loon wants to connect every home and business in Eeyou Istchee (as well as other James Bay communities) to ultra-fast fibre-optic internet.

“We’re going to be offering bundle service, a triple play: high-speed internet, TV and [internet-based telephone],” he said. “It’s an actual fibre cable that comes right to a terminal, the optical terminal unit, at each house.”

Fibre-optic offers the fastest internet currently available – considerably faster than regular high-speed internet.

“It’s always fibre!” announced Loon. “Don’t talk to me about satellite! Don’t talk to me about microwave! What we do is fibre.”

This idea has been growing for a while, and began with a Phase 1 plan, which introduced a fibre-optic network connecting six of the nine Cree communities – except for Eastmain, Waskaganish and Whapmasgoostui – as well as some Jamesian municipalities. As a regional project under Cree leadership, Phase 1 targeted major entities – the Cree Health and School Boards, band councils, and other municipal offices and organizations.

The new plan has two parts. Phase 2 aims at connecting the major entities in Eastmain and Waskaganish (all the way to Matagami) to the existing network. The second and more ambitious part of the plan is to make fibre-optic internet available to every home and business in the region.

“We looked at different options available, and we came up with Fibre to the Home (FTTH),” Loon said. “That’s the bundle service. Every household and small enterprise will get this – the number is in the low 9,000 homes, in both the communities and municipalities. We’ll connect everybody. But the important thing is the take rate – how many people will take the service. Some people will only take one or two [of the internet, TV and telephone services], or all three. It’s a different service mix, which means it’s hard to determine.”

Loon estimated that the average monthly cost per home for would be about $152, though it will depend on which services customers decide to order. Internet will be offered at three different speeds – 50, 100, and 1000 megabits per second. (1 Megabit = 0.125 Megabytes.) The initial setup will cost $100, and the program will create roughly 25 jobs in Eeyou Istchee.

ECN submitted a proposal January 12 to the federal government’s Connecting Canadians initiative, which offers financial support to Internet providers improving connectivity in remote regions. The decision on the application will not be made until the spring.

However, Loon stresses that the future of the project is not in the hands of the Canadian government.

“This is going to happen in Eeyou Istchee,” he said. “If the federal government gives us the money, good! It’ll make our case more solid. But even if I don’t get the grant money, I’m still going to go ahead and do it. The project will sustain itself, based on the feasibility study.”

As well, he added, “The Cree Nation Government is a very strong supporter of the project. I expect they’ll give their financial support.”

At the same time, Loon underscores that the Phase 2 project is the more important of the two possibilities, because as many Cree communities need to be connected as possible to ensure the stability of the fibre-optic network.

“On telecom system networks using fibre the way you go about it is you have to create a ring,” he explained. “So if your cable’s cut, it redirects your traffic and nobody gets disrupted. At the moment we don’t have the ring, so that can create a problem for stability. That’s why we need Phase 2 – to close the ring.”

Once the ring is closed, Loon says, they will begin working on a plan to include Whapmagoostui, which presents a challenge because it has no roads or hydro lines connecting it to the other Cree communities. Loon foresees an underwater fibre-optic cable, which would make the least amount of disruption to the land, wildlife and traplines. However, Loon says ECN’s engineer prefers installing the cables overland, which facilitates repairs in the event the cable is cut or damaged.

“Underwater it takes longer to fix,” he said. “The boat would have to come from Halifax and it has a 40-man crew, so you pay a million bucks before you even reach your destination.”

For Waskaganish and Eastmain, the plan is to bury the lines along the James Bay Highway to protect them from damage during seasonal forest fires.

Loon is optimistic that both wings of the project – Phase 2 and FTTH – should be complete by the middle of next winter. He wants the pricing to be competitive.

“A year from now, hopefully, we’ll take care of the speed of the internet,” he said. “The monthly rate of the triple-play we’ll try to make it comparable to what they pay in the cities. You know what they say in economics, that the customer always pays at the end. I want to make sure the customer doesn’t pay a hefty amount. The rates have to be affordable.”

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