Storm Internet offers help in North Grenville

From left, Storm Internet co-owner Birket Foster, Storm Manager of Sales Michel Lalonde, and Storm Business Development Associate Peter Vanderlind, at a Dec. 7 presentation to the North Grenville Economic Development Committee. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

KEMPTVILLE — When it comes to blanketing rural North Grenville with affordable wireless broadband service, Storm Internet officials delivered — in essence — a Jerry Maguire-like message to the municipality’s Economic Development Committee last month: Help us help you.

As a result of the Eastern Ontario Regional Network project of a few years ago, most North Grenville addresses are technically within service range of a dozen Storm broadcast towers serving the municipality. In an ideal situation, a roof-top receiver will do the trick.

But some prospective clients in North Grenville — because of terrain, trees and distance — may yet require the installation of a $1,200 tower on their property to rise above the foliage and tap into the line-of-sight signal. “So that means you, the end user, would have to build a 60-, 70-, or 80-foot tower, and that’s not financially available for everyone to do so,” acknowledged Peter Vanderlind, Storm Internet business development associate. For neighbourhoods in this predicament, Vanderlind said, Storm is eager to help. If demand warrants, the firm will erect a “node” at a high point within an otherwise poor coverage pocket to avoid the need for individual household towers.

But because the company “can’t throw a node up” for one or two potential clients, explained Storm’s manager of sales Michel Lalonde, groups of residents must organize to sign up adequate households on their street or subdivision before the node goes in.

And if one property owner already owns a tall structure — a grain silo or old ham radio tower — that individual can take the lead and solicit customers for a node hosted on their site. The owner typically gets free Internet service, while Storm gets access to additional paying accounts.

“I’ve got a farmer with a grain elevator that’s 100 feet high. Those types of things are so handy for us because to invest money into building new towers is an [otherwise] $50,000 minimum price tag,” said Lalonde. He added that Storm has also found windmills and blue silos  “very helpful” for this kind of “secondary” network development — augmenting those big main towers with smaller nodes to fill in coverage gaps. “With the right height, we can shoot 200 to 300 Mbps from one tower to the other, and then go down and drill into the neighbourhoods,” he said, showing extensive node development in neighbouring Lanark County.

He pointed to the example of a node-hosting property owner who recently went through the necessary “homework” of finding new Storm subscribers on her road, which in turn allowed Storm to repurpose an existing 96-foot tower she owned.  “So we ended up with a dozen or more customers in this neighbourhood, and we built a node for them, and they’re happy. So with the community’s help, we can definitely come.”

The Storm contingent also highlighted the role of municipalities in making their own tall buildings and structures available to encourage node development. “North Stormont’s CAO let us use his water towers in Moose Creek, Crysler and Finch to propagate our Internet,” reported Lalonde on a recently concluded project in that rural township east of Chesterville.

Eighteen municipal nodes are now receiving signal off those main towers in North Stormont, he said. Residents and businesses now have access to 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds should they choose to become Storm customers. The $100,000 project was split 60-40 between Storm and the township, said Storm Internet co-owner Birket Foster of Chesterville.

“So basically North Stormont has free Internet at 18 nodes. They pay for the power. Talk about opportunity,” exclaimed the tech entrepreneur and broadband advocate also know for his data migration company of 40 years, M.B. Foster Associates. “We know what mission critical is, and we can do it from the countryside, and it’s completely possible to do this kind of thing from the cornfields of Chesterville,” said Foster. “And part of the reason for that is because we’re close to an airport and because we have Internet.”

Foster apprised the committee of another development that could help deliver even better Storm coverage in the future: ‘fixed’ LTE. Similar to the premium mobile LTE wireless technology operated by cell phone carriers, fixed LTE is somewhat cheaper because it doesn’t track the location of moving devices. And just like cellular LTE service, the signal doesn’t depend on line of sight to the tower, isn’t impeded by tree cover, offers screaming performance, and could potentially hit more customers with fewer towers over distances of up to 15 km. Storm is currently conducting a $400,000 LTE test involving three towers in Lanark, he said, through the federal government’s ‘Digital 150’ program.

But broader rollout of LTE would be costly, according to Foster. The businessman, while obviously keen on the opportunities in rural wireless broadband, nonetheless offered a clear-eyed view of infrastructure costs alongside market demand: He reported that Storm’s previous network expansion, built through the Eastern Ontario Regional Network initiative, yielded an 11 percent uptake by the population potentially served, as of 2015. “So even though everybody says I want it, not everybody’s actually going to sign up,” he advised.

In addition to consumer demand for streaming video, the Storm delegation also highlighted the growing need for robust wireless broadband in agriculture — where sophisticated robotic milking and feeding systems continue to gain popularity in that sector.

In the video above, Storm Internet co-owner Birket Foster (left) begins the presentation at the meeting chaired by North Grenville Councillor Donovan Arnaud. Also with the Storm delegation were Michel Lalonde (centre) and Peter Vanderlind. Zandbergen video