Bell investing $50 million in Sarnia to bring fibre optic cable to 20,000 homes

Cathy Dobson

Bell Canada is about to dig deep to connect about 20,000 homes in Sarnia and Point Edward with fibre-optic cables the company say will provide “world class” Internet and “rock solid” reliability.

The telecommunications giant is spending more than $50 million in Sarnia to provide home and commercial customers with better phone and TV service and gigabit-Internet speeds 200 times that of existing ones.

Not only will the company need to dig deep to cover the cost, work crews will literally have to dig into the front yards of thousands of properties.

The massive upgrade locally is part of a multibillion-dollar investment Bell is making across Canada to keep up with consumer demand for Internet service much faster than copper wiring can provide.

Toronto, Sudbury, Cornwall and Hamilton have already been connected with fibre optics and the work is underway in Windsor.

Sarnia was chosen to be up next because of its aging Bell infrastructure, said Mike Berkvens, the city’s acting director of engineering.

“They haven’t invested in Sarnia for a number of years,” he said. “We haven’t had upgrades in a long time.”

Calvin Deleavey, senior manager with Bell’s Fibre To The Home (FTTH) program, said Bell chose Sarnia and Point Edward to be next on the rollout because of the strong level of co-operation coming from the city and village.

“The difference (in service) is really night and day,” he said.

About 75% of local homes will require surveying to pinpoint existing services and digging to bury the fibre-optic strands.

“Three quarters of Sarnia has buried plant, it’s under the ground, so we end up marking up the lawns … we do have to dig up stuff,” Jamie Nightingale, director of Bell’s FTTH program, told city council last week.

“Actually, we don’t dig trenches but rather use directional drilling, which is much less intrusive to the customer,” Deleavey said. “This costs us much more, but it also results in a much more positive experience for the city and the customer.”

“There is going to be big equipment out that people will see,” Nightingale said.  But we try to do it as succinctly as possible, so we’re not just going in with bulldozers and ripping things up.”

He and Deleavey asked council for an agreement to ensure Bell has access to municipal right-of-ways.

Bell has agreed to pay for three new city employees to be hired on a contract basis during the two-to-three year project.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Coun. Matt Mitro said. “This is like winning the lottery for economic development, so thank you.”

Coun. Mike Kelch asked if it was better to hold off until even better technology comes along. Some phone companies in the United States are waiting for wireless technology, Kelch noted.

“To hold off would be a big mistake,” said Deleavey. “A lot of cities will go by you in technical capabilities.”

Not only will home owners be glad to have faster service, new industry will be attracted by fibre optic availability, he said.

Kelch pointed out there have been stories about other cities “being dug up” for unacceptable periods of time.

“The big incentive to get in and get out quickly is to get returns on our investment,” answered Nightingale.

Homeowners unhappy with how their lawn is being dug up will be able to discuss it with the contractor and, “if the customer isn’t pleased, our leadership team will deal with it,” said Deleavey.

In an email to The Journal, he said the drilling will occur on municipal right-of-ways, not private property.  Right-of-ways fall within 15 feet from the road.

And “we install grade level boxes that are level with the ground,” Deleavey wrote.  “Again, this is much less intrusive to the customer and doesn’t affect lawn mowing and snow removal.”

Some aerial poles will continue to be used.

Once every house is connected with fibre optics, customers can choose to stick with their existing services or sign up for fibre optic service.

“I think the big thing will be how much more people are willing to pay for speed,” said Berkvens.

With bundle pricing (phone, TV and Internet), customers could end up paying less than what they currently pay and receive better, more reliable service, according to Deleavey.

“It really depends on the service the customer is interested in.”

Drawings indicating the location of lines and boxes should be complete this fall. Digging starts in the spring.