From small cities rebelling against the introduction of 5G small cells to an aging fiber optic network, the Pacific Northwest has few bright spots amid serious challenges for enhancing both its wired and wireless data connectivity at a time of growing population and economic integration.
Those were some of the takeaways at the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER)’s Economic Leadership Forum in Seattle on Monday.
PNWER is a binational economic cooperation forum headquartered in Seattle. Chartered by statute from state and provincial legislatures, it encompasses Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Northwest Territories, Oregon, Saskatchewan, Washington, and Yukon.
Vancouver, B.C.-based Cascadia FiberNet hopes to break ground in January on the first new fiber-optic line in the region in 20 years, which is roughly the lifespan of existing cables. Called Cascadia Gateway, the 864-strand line will connect Vancouver’s Harbour Centre with Seattle’s Westin Building Exchange, the downtown hub for telecommunications lines including submarine cables from Asia.
“They are building a 864-lane highway which would allow tens of thousands of terabytes if people use the right optics,” Westin Building Exchange’s Strategic Planning Director Michael Boyle told GeekWire.
The existing 24-pair fiber-optic line between the two major cities, just 140 miles apart, runs along the coast on a BNSF rail right of way. With just 48 strands, there is no unused or “dark fiber” left, according to Cascadia FiberNet CEO Ken Thorpe.
Both Microsoft and Amazon have significant offices in Vancouver, and Amazon recently added a third fulfillment center in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, all of which is generating demand for new fiberoptics to connect those facilities with their corporate headquarters.
“Microsoft and Amazon have to connect somewhere, but there’s no space,” Thorpe told GeekWire. “So here we are connecting Cascadia as a whole network that is open and transparent for all.”
Thorpe blames the border for delaying a long overdue upgrade. Canadian telecom providers have no mandate to provide service south of the border and U.S. carriers have not viewed Vancouver as a major market, though that is changing with increasing cross-border business along the so-called Cascadia Innovation Corridor.
Bureaucratic snags have also slowed Cascadia FiberNet’s groundbreaking, the company says. While Thorpe only had to work with seven different agencies in Canada and received approval in three weeks, the bulk of Cascadia Gateway will run through Washington, where he must contend with 42 different U.S. agencies between federal, state, local, and tribal entities, a process that has dragged on for 18 months. In addition, the joint U.S.-Canada International Boundary Commission must approve laying the new line, which will eventually require presidential approval.
For Boyle, the groundbreaking can’t come soon enough.
“Somebody needs to put up or shut up because our region, Canada included, has not built new fiber in 20 years” he said, citing Seattle-Spokane and Washington-Montana as other existing chokepoints. “This whole region needs an upgrade.”
While Cascadia Gateway’s new fiber-optic line is advancing slowly through local approvals, the proposed rollout of 5G wireless technology is a much more mixed bag.
Similar to the anti-vaccination movement that flourished in the Pacific Northwest, grassroots opposition to 5G small cells can be found in cities up and down the region from citizen activists at city council meetings to ominous warnings posted in Seattle neighborhoods, even though the technology has not yet been deployed anywhere west of the Cascades.
In addition to that skepticism, major U.S. telecom carriers pushing 5G in partnership with the Federal Communications Commission must also contend with resistance from local governments nationwide, which have sued the regulatory agency over the amount they can charge carriers for installing 5G small cells and the time required to review permit applications.
Seattle, Tacoma, and King County all joined those lawsuits. Bellevue, Wash. is following FCC rules even as the suit winds its way through court, while Seattle is not.
Verizon enterprise architect Azmeena Hasham acknowledges the hurdles of installing new infrastructure in 21st-century fully built-out cities as compared to the first era of telecom development. “Back then we were going into largely greenfield sites, whereas today when we refresh the stale communications network, it is an altogether different scenario,” she said. “It creates tension.”
There are bright spots for 5G rollout in the Northwest, however. In late September, Verizon launched 5G service in Boise. The Spokane Valley is also amenable to 5G. “We’re leveraging the urban advantages of a mid-sized city on the rise and developing a proving ground for replicable and scalable smart city solutions that can be adapted to mid-sized cities anywhere,” said Kim Zentz, CEO of Washington State University’s Spokane-based smart cities initiative, Urbanova, which has championed 5G locally.
But just north of Spokane, 5G is entirely on hold. The Canadian government paused a nationwide 5G plan in July following a row with Chinese tech company Huawei, which was set to build the infrastructure.
“Canadian telecom people are beside themselves,” PNWER CEO Matt Morrison told GeekWire.
The rocky road for these data connectivity technologies could threaten the region’s competitiveness, he said.
“5G and fiber optics are essential infrastructure for creating the business applications that have the potential to change the global economy,” he said.
Or, as Washington State Representative Vandana Slatter put it more succinctly: “Data is the new oil.”