Monday, September 8, 2014

Fibre Optic Nuts and Bolts

The Town of Drayton Valley is going the last mile. Every home, business or premise will have the ability to connect to fibre optic internet. This information superhighway allows citizens of Drayton Valley to be world leaders in internet connectivity, innovation and communication.  It will change the way we experience knowledge and access information. Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message. When the medium is a fast, sleek strand of glass carrying bits and bytes of reflecting signals, Drayton Valley is a bold stepper.

Jack Mackenzie’s company installs fibre optic cable and the conduit pipe it rests in. He was working beside a back-hoe with a few guys installing kilometers of the four-inch orange plastic tubing from a six foot high roll, three feet underground. I approached gingerly in case he was too busy for conversation, it was nearing the end of the day and beginning to rain. Oh, the contrary. Jack went to his truck, grabbed a chunk of fibre optic cable and let me examine it. He showed how 144 glass fibre strands lie parallel in a hose with the diameter of a dime. He said be careful. If a piece of glass breaks off and gets into your body you could never find it, it’s so small. Jack’s crew from 4C Telecom Inc. will install the conduit. Then the fibre optic cable will be ballooned through the pipe by attaching a parachute to one end and blasting.

I asked David LeDrew, IT specialist at the Town of Drayton Valley, how fibre optic technology works. In fact, I asked him about four times, and he always patiently explained it to me. He said 10 gigabit Ethernet works fast because in Ethernet, the medium of transmission is light instead of electrical pulses. Theoretically, with no friction the maximum speed that the bits could travel would be the speed of light! The speed of light, people! The cable Jack gave me was made of 144 strands of glass. Dynamic wave division multiplexing (DWDM) allows the light to move on different wavelengths in each strand of fibre in the cable. The bits go so fast you can view content almost instantaneously. There’s nothing slowing the signal down.

So what is the last mile? The last mile refers to making fast internet available all along the network to reach people’s homes and businesses. This example shows the problem with not going the last mile: if internet going past your house is fibre optic cable, but from the node to your house the line is copper, information cannot get through to your house at as great a speed as on the fibre. Or take the example of fibre optic tv. If you don’t have fibre all the way to the house then the fastest the signal can go is as fast as your slowest connection. Slow internet is frustrating. Many rural communities notice the problem with retaining people and businesses if their internet is not satisfactory. An example is found in The Stettler Independent. It seems that the community is losing out on business and other opportunities as a result of poor technology infrastructure. Olds was the first community in western Canada to go the last mile, but their method of going about it was different than in Drayton Valley. In Drayton Valley, the municipal government and Telus have arranged for the infrastructure. Ensuring the town is completely serviced in fibre is a big step in providing the conditions that will allow community and business to thrive, innovate and diversify. 

What does the last mile mean to the Drayton Valley Municipal Library and our community of supporters? Right now there are not very many towns that are totally connected by fibre. Having complete fibre connectivity will offer great potential for research into physical and digital technologies, as well as research into understanding the social realities and limits of technology. For example, such research could include exploring the physiological changes which happen to the way our brains processes information in a digital world. Or what is the best way to mediate the digital divide between those with and those without information fluency? Or what is the best and most comprehensive way to make this technology accessible in the library? Or what programs and services could we offer in relation to technology and community?

The powerful tool of fibre optic connectivity to every premise makes the focus of Drayton Valley Library’s literacy outreach even more important. We still have to know how to read and write. We still have to maintain continuity of knowledge, even if our very brains change in relation to technology. Change is not bad, but adapting to change is a skill. Basic literacy must still be nurtured and enhanced with training and awareness of communication processes and the skills to know how to search for information, evaluate information and collaborate with others. A most logical role for the library in this is to ensure all people have access to information and information skills. We can foster training in information fluency through the library. We can provide physical access to those who are visitors or who do not have their own technology at home. Literacy is still key and we will make the most of the transformation in the way we learn and know.

The library can promote discussion about how to ensure that as a town, we support intellectual freedom and that we remain committed to ensuring all people have equal access to knowledge and information regardless of situation, income or ability. We might not even be having this discussion in Drayton Valley right now if fibre optic cable spools and the conduit tubes were not being dropped on every corner. As we speak the installation is soon to be complete. I hope that Drayton Valley Municipal Library, the first rural library in Alberta to provide dial up Internet access to the community in the early 1990’s, will continue to step boldly – continue to be on the forefront of providing access to knowledge and information, fostering community engagement and belonging, and helping promote literacy of all kinds. Drop by the library and ask to see my piece of 144 and watch for upcoming library programs that will help us learn more about how to make the most of all that digital media technologies have to offer.

By Gayle Sacuta, September 8, 2014

This article is my attempt to explain fibre optics in plain language. Please excuse any errors or omissions. Thanks Dave, Nesen, Jack and Sandy for helping with details. I referenced information in the post through the following sources:

Drayton Valley Library

Federman, Mark. What is the Meaning of The Medium is the Message?

Internet everywhere - Is Internet access now an essential service for all Canadians? Should it be free and everywhere? CBC Cross Country Checkup | May 18, 2014 | 1:53:00

Internet shortage frustrates Stettler-area residents, March 19, 2014.

Wavelength-division multiplexing. Wikipedia, accessed September 5, 2014.

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