Chisasibi – Quebec
Friday, 8 August 2014, 03:55 PM
By Hyman Glustein
To Canadian city-dwellers looking at a highway map of northern Quebec, Chisasibi is the end of the road. To the people of this northern outpost where James Bay and Hudson Bay are met by the La Grande river, it’s the beginning.
Chisasibi, population 3,000, is a new town with old ways, where hunting and fishing traditions meld with technoculture, where the two-week goose break means setting your VCR so that you can catch up on the latest news about war in Serbia, the Stanley Cup playoffs or The Practice, and where e-mail is part of daily business life because 2-way cable reaches every building.
Bringing cable television to this remote community required careful planning, leaving little to chance. Consultants for the community organized competitive bidding for the construction phase, specifically requiring that the system be 2-way ready.
Back in 1991 when the tenders were called, 2-way cable was considered necessary for local broadcasting, alarms and surveillance. Cable Internet was not a consideration. The cable plant cost about $180,000 and came in on time with no cost overruns. “At the time, the community was very concerned about the financial risk,” admitted Ginwat-Cable Television president Raymond Menarick.
“We didn’t know if it was affordable. It seemed overwhelming — 2-way cable TV, a local TV channel — but we thought we could handle it because it offered us new avenues.”
Seven years later, with Internet on the horizon, Ginwat-Cable TV was ready to take their clients for a drive on their “i-Way”, the name Ginwat uses for the Chisasibi ramp onto the Internet.
Menarick, now 39, is no newcomer to broadcast media. As manager of the Chisasibi commercial FM radio station CHFG, a director of the satellite-distributed Cree Regional Radio Network and operator of the local radio-telephone service, he started out as an apprentice technician when Cree radio meant only a few hours a day of broadcasting — some of it locally produced and some from the CBC Northern Service.
In 1985, along with fellow resident Oliver Rupert, he signed up for a one-year technical training program in Mistissini, a Cree village near Chibougamau, to learn management, broadcast journalism, training staff — the basics needed to manage a local radio station.
Today Chisasibi has gone beyond those early days. Over 550 households in Chisasibi can now enjoy all-day local, regional and national Cree-language FM radio, 35 channels on cable TV and faster-than-telephone Internet. Rupert, now vice-president of the cable firm, designed and activated its return path system, converting the 2-way ready system into a 2-way active medium.
Over 90 percent of homes subscribe to cable, paying $41 for 25-channel basic and speciality packages (including TSN, RDS and Family) and $61 for all services including wall-to-wall movies on TMN and US superstations. This myriad of radio, cable, Internet and portable phone communications is now solidly in the hands of the Chisasibi Telecommunications Association, a community non-profit corporation where every resident is a voting member.
“Oliver (Rupert) and Raymond (Menarick) were incredible,” remembers Fred Leclaire, former master operator at CBC and one of the teachers at the training program in Mistissini. “I would arrive in the morning before the students and intentionally create artificial problems on the equipment, trying to get them to troubleshoot. Those two would come in and put things back together before I could ask them how they would do it. They enjoyed problems.”
Onto the I-Way
Last year, Ginwat-Cable decided it was time to go cable-Internet. The local telco, Telebec, had long promised its telephone version but, to this day, does not offer local-dialup. Menarick heard that Cancom was experimenting with a 2-way satellite Internet service and convinced them to sign up Ginwat. The service was costly, some $55,000 in uplink and downlink VSAT Comstream hardware, receivers, Cisco routers and servers, almost $2,000 in monthly fees and nearly $500 per Zenith modem; however, the alternative was slow-speed Internet by long-distance, a costlier and less reliable service that often costs heavy commercial users $200-$300 a month.
Menarick visited urban based cable-Internet providers including a brief session with Robin Lavoie, Internet wizard at Cogeco in Trois-Rivieres, trying to learn as much as possible about their marketing and service approach. He also met Brad Davies, president of Cancable Inc. who worked closely with Cogeco and Rogers and pioneered the installation of Internet over cable across Canada. These discussions sold him on the idea and Davies and his crew travelled to Chisasibi to install the modem network and train local staff, including Menarick, in providing support.
“The Internet does not recognize geographic boundaries and residents of Chisasibi are now travelling on the information superhighway as quickly as anyone in North America,” noted Davies. “Residents of Chisasibi now have Internet service which is as good as that available in most large Canadian cities.”
“We found Menarick and his staff were not afraid to experiment with new technology. Now, they are self sufficient and operate an advanced data over cable network without outside assistance.”
Menarick learned quickly that Internet customers need support. Despite his busy schedule at the radio station, he decided to head the support team. When a customer has an Internet problem in Chisasibi, it’s the company president who makes sure its solved.
Does Internet service make ends meet? Hardly, answered Menarick. “We’re planning to provide telephone access for under $20 for those who find cable modems too expensive. But for those cable customers who want totally unlimited high-speed service, we charge $50 and a rent-to-own modem for $15.” Today, most businesses in Chisasibi and a growing number of home users have signed up.
“We’re reaching 15% of our cable market,” said Menarick. “With the growing interest in computers and the increasing number of students graduating from our high school, our plan needs another year before we make the Internet pay. But we really look at it as a service to the community. It’s cable TV that still pays the bills.” Even more, Internet is an important edge over the DTH competition.
“We always promoted cable as a family medium that serves everyone at the same time,” said Rupert. “We connect households, not just one TV set. Ever since we started, we always installed two hookups per home and we told our subscribers that they could use either connection for every TV channel they signed up for.”
“Now cable serves more than one appliance. To us, small-dishes mean that everyone has to watch the same channel and has to have the same interests. That’s not very realistic when you have three kids, visitors and your relatives at home.”
Menarick is also following telephone Internet developments, knowing that one day technology will allow small cable systems to move there. “We’re working on improving our Internet service. Right now, we don’t have a lot of satellite bandwidth to waste, so we have to allocate carefully.”
“Long term, we would like the Cree radio network out there live on Real Audio, long-distance competition using the Internet, a community database for our regional services, on-the-job learning systems, but in the short-term, its mostly support and maintenance that are our main concerns.”
Skidoos, Satellites: Adjusting to Southern Exposure
As Vice-President of Engineering, Oliver Rupert mans the Ginwat-Cable hotline, an on-call duty that requires answers to unusual questions.
It was in the midst of a crucial Maple Leafs-Canadiens game when viewers noticed that their TV images had frozen, checkerboarded and finally returned. Unfortunately, it was more than a few moments of lost TV; it was the winning goal.
Rupert drove to the head end; the only activity he could see was the buzz of snowmobiles racing over the hills. He turned on his monitor and noticed that as some of the skidoos came closer, the video noise increased — but only on C-band channels.
He called the help lines at Cancom and Telesat but no-one seemed to know the answer. He spoke with other cable operators, who suggested he move his dishes or build an elaborate shielding screen. In the middle of winter, these ideas were too costly and impractical.
Rupert looked at different snowmobiles. He concluded that the noise came from the ones with souped-up unshielded ignitions and that these devices were emitting signals in the C-band frequency range. His solution: he brought in his crew with shovels, built a small hill at the base of the dish with hard snow, covered the hill with used chicken wire and it worked: it actually deflected the noise.
This no-cost engineering solution melted that spring — just about the time that the snowmobiles were stored. So during the summer, they rebuilt the hill out of sand and some 2X4s, allowing the snow to become an annual shield against snowmobile interference.