June 10, 2021

Rural Broadband Communities: Bridging the Digital Divide in Canada

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch.

The following podcast is a discussion of the problems facing rural broadband communities, including broadband funding and remote connectivity. Amedeo Bernardi, Founder of the CRRBC, Canada’s Rural and Remote Broadband Conference, discusses these problems as well as the solutions that have led to rural broadband becoming available. Some of the other topics we cover include:

  • Rural Broadband Connectivity
  • Providing Rural Broadband, Internet, and Telecom
  • Rural Broadband For Municipalities
  • Rural Broadband For Communities
  • Rural Broadband as an Essential Service
  • Rural Broadband Funding

Craig Corbin:

Welcome to the Broadband Bunch, a podcast about broadband and how it impacts all of us. The Broadband Bunch, as always sponsored by ETI Software.

Craig Corbin:

My guest today is fully engaged in pursuing ways to bridge the digital divide, in part by way of a forum for community leaders, rural broadband advocates, service providers, and government officials. The founder of CRRBC, Canada’s Rural and Remote Broadband Conference, Amedeo Bernardi. Amedeo, welcome to the Broadband Bunch.

Craig Corbin:

It is an exciting time, and even though we are dealing with a global pandemic, for the broadband industry, it truly has shown a spotlight on the need for connectivity. And that’s something that you’ve been involved in, in a lot of different ways over the years. As we get started, give us an overview of your background in the industry.

Rural Broadband and Remote Connectivity

Amedeo Bernardi:

I have been involved in rural and remote broadband connectivity for I’d say several decades in Canada. Started back doing wireless, going across the country, helping some companies get established with their networks, and ended up in Northern Ontario, in the end, running a government-owned agency that had been providing telecom services to the North for over a hundred years and really re-grounded me in my Northern Ontarian roots, Northern Canadian roots.

Amedeo Bernardi:

Our networks went north of Toronto, Canada up to Hudson’s Bay across almost to the US border on the Sioux Michigan side and over to Quebec. Then in subsequent years, I’ve been consulting and working with small service providers, medium service providers, and communities across Canada, helping them navigate everything broadband. It’s been really exciting, and basically culminated in setting up, as you mentioned, Canada’s Rural and Remote Broadband Conference, or now we’ve renamed it to Communities at the end, just to make it even more appropriate.

Craig Corbin:

In any environment, the opportunity to share information, exchange ideas is positive, and especially not only for those that are already in the industry, but those that are pursuing the concept, the idea of entering broadband service. Talk about that component of the CRRBC as providing an opportunity for those types of exchanges.

Providing Rural Broadband, Internet, And Telecom

Amedeo Bernardi:

That’s a great point and I think if it was a year or two ago, I would have answered it to say, and I believed that it would have been more focused on those small services or new service providers looking to get into providing broadband, internet, telecom, whatever suite of services to communities.

Amedeo Bernardi:

But what I’ve seen now and what I see coming out of this forum, of this conference that we’ve been doing for the past 12 months, it’s the communities themselves that are asking the questions and are looking to take back their own destiny, just like they control their own, in most cases, their own municipal water supplies, community filtration, etc. And they’re the ones looking for insight and guidance and connections with the broad ecosystem of service providers and to find out, how do we do it ourselves? Can we do it ourselves? Does it make sense?

Amedeo Bernardi:

And that really has been an evolution in my own beliefs over this past year, and that’s one of the things that I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see in Canada anyways.

Rural Broadband Municipalities And Communities

Craig Corbin:

You use the term and I think it’s extremely appropriate, communities taking back their destinies. And that’s so important in the conversation because it’s not a matter of looking at broadband connectivity as a short-term solution. It is long-term survival in many cases, and we’ve had so many conversations over the last year, year, and a half with organizations, municipalities, and communities that realize that long gone are the days where having broadband is a luxury. It’s essential each and every day for all of us, and from a competitive standpoint, even more so. If you would talk about that.

Amedeo Bernardi:

I was introduced to the term essential service last year, 2019. So about 14 months ago when we did our first conference in my hometown of North Bay, Ontario. That’s when the mayor of the town of Caledon, Mayor Thompson got up and said, he was one of my keynotes and said, “Broadband is an essential service.” It hit the airwaves, so to speak. I thought, okay, that’s amazing. It is that, and now through the past 12 months with the various provincial, territorial, federal funding, whatever it might be, you always see references to something like essential service.

Click here for more information about service management platforms for WISPs, municipalities, and communities.

Rural Broadband as an Essential Service

Amedeo Bernardi:

But I’m going to go back on that and it’s a source of, I guess, frustration and that is in Canada anyways and predominantly in Ontario and Quebec in the early days of telecom, there were, and still are, but there were many more in the day, community municipally-owned telephone operators or telephone systems. Whether they were, and just like in the United States, right? Your rural, your large amount of rural operators were farmers that got together and said, hey, we need to solve a problem, a hundred years ago.

Amedeo Bernardi:

The local doctor said, hey, I have money. I will help. One of my friends, colleagues runs a company that’s been around for a hundred years, Execulink in Southwestern Ontario. It was started way back by his great grandfather I believe. A local entrepreneur that wanted to give back to the community, let’s connect. These companies flourished for a hundred years.

Amedeo Bernardi:

SaskTel in Saskatchewan is provincially owned. There were all of these essential services over a hundred years ago created by communities and have been thriving and now through acquisition and whatever the numbers reduced.

Amedeo Bernardi:

It’s frustrating to see that in some cases, governments may have been a little shortsighted thinking, we’re going to get a bit of upfront cash if we sell our community telecom, and we can go use that to build a road. These are the same communities now trying to go, oh, how do we do that again? How do we go back to reclaiming what was an essential company that was providing dividends back to the community to help us build the new highway, the new water pipes, which are all broadband?

Amedeo Bernardi:

It’s a bit of a pet peeve, but it’s always my cautionary tale when I advise communities to say, be mindful. 10, 20, 30 years ago or 30 years looking forward, not to suddenly discard this asset because there were communities that have done it and they’ve regretted it.

Amedeo Bernardi:

Anyways, a bit of a tangent on what you’re asking me, but it’s really something that I’m always just in awe of, again, rural US companies. We were part of an association that used to be called the municipally-owned telecom association and always worked closely with our American counterparts. And it was just great to see those roots and all that knowledge and how those communities just knew it. They said, this is essential, and they’ve been around for over a hundred years.

Craig Corbin:

You are listening to the Broadband Bunch and our guest today, Amedeo Bernardi, the founder of CRRBC, Canada’s Rural and Remote Broadband Conference.

Craig Corbin:

No matter where there are efforts to join the world of broadband service providers, there are challenges that will hinder those efforts. From the conversations that you’ve had, from what you’ve experienced there with the conference, what have you heard? What have you seen as the biggest impediments to success in this effort?

Amedeo Bernardi:

I’m going to say coordination. Yes, there are always the barriers of accessing the incumbents’ infrastructure, the utility poles, and I’d say that’s table stakes in a sense. Everybody needs to deal with that, and hopefully, the government comes around too, in the areas where they can control access and pricing for these types of third-party infrastructure that they can do that.

Amedeo Bernardi:

What I see through the conference is a lack of coordination. Lack of coordination between communities, lack of coordination between government, and lack of coordination between the communities and the government.

Amedeo Bernardi:

Where I see a lack of coordination with the communities, and now it’s getting better, but its communities saying, well, we’re alone. We’re going to do this alone. There’s not enough money in the world. Our public funding money anyways, not in Canada anyways, to give each community the amount they need and to hopefully their business case may or may not fly. It’s not a community of 80 homes. It’s not necessarily a tangible business case.

Rural Broadband Community Coordination

Amedeo Bernardi:

Communities need to continue reaching out to their neighbors, whether they’re next door or regionally, to put together coordinated plans and business plans that are reasonable and sustainable, and come forward with that.

Amedeo Bernardi:

On the government side, I see a lack of coordination between funding programs. So even within our federal government, you have the CRTC that’s introduced the broadband fund a couple of years ago. Now you have another branch of government, innovation, science, and economic development that’s introduced the amazing universal broadband fund.

Rural Broadband Funding

Amedeo Bernardi:

Then below that, and I’ll speak provincially where I am in Ontario, there’s the ICON, Internet Connectivity Ontario Fund, and because of different timelines, political agendas, I don’t know, access to funds, the programs don’t necessarily line up or mesh. That’s very difficult for communities to hit all these somewhat moving targets.

Amedeo Bernardi:

As is usually the case with funding agreements, one might be predicated on the other because one might be 10% and one might be 70% and you need to put in your own money.

Amedeo Bernardi:

It’s that to me it’s the lack of coordination and that’s what we’ve been trying to work through. We’ll continue to do that with discussions such as with amazing programs like yourself that you’re running and the conference that I’m doing, and that is continuing to communicate and try to coordinate these groups to come together and put together solutions versus the individual aspect of trying to solve a problem.

Craig Corbin:

It’s interesting that you mention that because as you responded there, my question next would be, would it be a correct assumption that the challenges that you just talked about might have provided the impetus for you creating the CRRBC?

Rural Broadband Challenges

Amedeo Bernardi:

It was actually spring 2019, I was at a conference, an engineering firm was putting on and there was a mention of rural broadband challenges. And then I sat in the lobby having a coffee with a friend of mine, and I started lamenting saying, hey, lamenting is polite. I was complaining saying, doesn’t it get you? And I’m saying this to a fellow who lives in Toronto. I said, doesn’t it get you that we’re always at these conferences and we’re always preaching to the converted because we’re all technical, we’re all part of the industry. There’s really nobody here from a community. And we all talk about, oh, we need to fix this and we need to fix that.

Amedeo Bernardi:

When it comes to rural connectivity, it’s more of a passing comment because it’s so, there’s not as much money and it’s not as sexy. I said we should do something about it. My friend is Jason Ashley Pressman. I owe this to him. He said, why don’t you do something about it? He said you like organizing stuff. I had just come off with a group organizing of all things, the international beach volleyball tournament in North Bay, Ontario.

Amedeo Bernardi:

Yep, and if anybody ever wants to look it up on the map, we are so far from an ocean or a sea, but it worked. It was fun. We did it for a bunch of years, so yeah. I said, yeah, that’s true. I mean, how hard can it be? I came back home and started reaching out to some colleagues in government that all had broadband files assigned to them. We start talking about it and it was summer 2019.

Amedeo Bernardi:

The discussion was, well, we’ll do a little, do a little half-day thing in North Bay. We’ll do a full day and we’ll call it Northeastern Ontario something or other. My friend in government who is in Northwestern Ontario said, yeah, but you know, we’re over here too, and this is all the North. Okay. Then finally, a childhood friend that’s in the industry and in the Toronto, area said, Amedeo, this is a problem across Canada. It’s not just Northern Ontario. I just stuck Canada in front of this session I was going to do and called it Canada’s Rural and Remote Broadband Conference and decided to let’s make it happen right now.

Amedeo Bernardi:

And by that time it was September and we picked a date. It was November and I went to the local, we’ll call it a convention center, but it’s just a local hotel that had a dining room and I booked it. My wife said, oh, that’s interesting. Do you have any sponsors? And I said, no, actually I don’t.

Amedeo Bernardi:

Yeah, because she was, well, how are you paying for this? But it was remarkable. That’s how it all came about. It was more of over coffee, someone challenged me. We did it, pulled it together, had a lot of help. People in the community, people in the industry came together, oversold it, I could have kept going. It was 210 people and it doesn’t sound like a lot, but when the banquet hall only fits 200 people. I was really happy that for instance, I already mentioned Mayor Thompson. Thank goodness he had to leave to get back to Toronto because I took his dinner seat and gave it to somebody else. But it was that kind of thing.

Amedeo Bernardi:

At that point it was the executive director of the Canadian Radio and Telecommunication Commission CRTC that said to me at dinner, hey, this is great. It’s fantastic. You realize there are only 200 people here and we’re in North Bay. You should go across Canada with this. I, of course, before the conference had ended, had planned out 2020.

Craig Corbin:

Amedeo, that you have such passion for this, and I’ve seen it written that you bring unbridled enthusiasm to everything you do, and I would very much agree with that. How important though, is it that you are providing this type of forum and obviously with the 2020 conference much success from that. Give us an update on where things stand for the next iteration of CRRBC.

Canada Rural Broadband Forum

Amedeo Bernardi:

Well, 2021 is going to roll out obviously in a virtual format, and starting in the spring, we’ll be rolling out, or hosting probably three-hour sessions where we’re taking discussions that were held this past November at our national conference, for lack of, I guess, a better term and going deeper.

Amedeo Bernardi:

There’ll be a session on 5G in a rural setting. There is going to be a session talking about open access because every funding application says you have to have open access, but what is open access? What’s open access when you’re building in a community of 80 homes?

Rural Broadband Open Access Networks

Amedeo Bernardi:

Is it first in? I mean, who else is going to come? So, that’ll be an interesting one. Open access in Toronto is different than open access in Hornepayne or something.

Amedeo Bernardi:

Another one will be a deeper dive on satellites because everybody, thanks to Elon Musk and his self-marketing prowess, everybody, or not everybody, many of my customers and those that aren’t are saying, why don’t we just wait? Even governments say that. Why don’t we just wait? Starlink is going to solve the problem.

Rural Broadband Solved with Low Earth Satellites

Amedeo Bernardi:

You know what, maybe. Maybe OneWeb and Starlink and Telesat in Canada may solve the problem in certain areas. So we’re going to go deeper. I am part of the optical satellite consortium in Canada, and some of the biggest universities, and the national research council, SatCan, and we’re going to be hosting a forum on a deeper dive into what is LEO? What does it mean? And the realities of that. So that’s coming up too.

Amedeo Bernardi:

Another one is broadband now. And so that’ll be, I believe that one might be in April or May. We’re just finalizing it. And that one is, there are all these funding applications going on. Maybe one in 10 groups will be lucky to get government funding, but what about the other nine?

Amedeo Bernardi:

Are you going to stop? How can you make it happen in your community without government funding? So that’s the other one. And that’s all going to lead through to our conference in November.

Amedeo Bernardi:

In between, I’ll be doing a CRRBC videocast, just as a buildup to the November event and talking to subject matter experts and community, similar to what this program is doing and what you’re doing.

Amedeo Bernardi:

I’ve already started booking into 2022, so fall of 2022. Hopefully, the terrible pandemic is more of memory at that time, and we can get back to supporting all the wonderful service workers that have been impacted by this and get back to do live conferences. I know many of my people I talk to are just itching to get back face-to-face. I’ve already booked Banff in Western Canada and Fredericton in Eastern Canada for late 2022 to get back into doing face-to-face conferences.

Craig Corbin:

There are those who might want to get more information. What is the best way that people can do that?

Amedeo Bernardi:

To keep updated on the conferences themselves, people can go to the website, bridgingthedigitaldivide.ca, and I’ll provide the link to you. That’s probably the best way to do it, or again, depending on how my credentials roll, you can reach out to me directly at Amedeo Bernardi.

Craig Corbin:

That is so important that this forum exists, and obviously making a huge difference. As we begin to wind down our time, you look back over your career in communications with what you’re doing now. There have to be so many examples of great stories, great memories that you have. Is there anyone that might stand out as being special to you over those years?

Amedeo Bernardi:

It’s when they were asking Tom Brady the other day, what was, is this your best Superbowl win, and he said they were all special. I hate to say it, but everything has been special. I think the first CRRBC where the room was packed and I saw the passion of everybody in that room and we were all there for the same reason. To me, that was so important. It really gave me the added drive to keep going and to know that it’s the right message. So I’m going to stick with that one.

Craig Corbin:

You could see that it had come to fruition and all the labors that had gone into making that happen were there in reality. So glad to have been able to spend time with you today and learn more about what great work you’ve got going on there with the CRRBC. Look forward to visiting again down the road and finding what has developed over time, but Amedeo, greatly appreciate your time today.

Amedeo Bernardi:

I think your programs are phenomenal and keep up the great work and thanks for everything you’re doing for rural and remote connectivity across North America.

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