Canadian Consulting Engineer

Alberta SuperNet

October 1, 2005
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

The Alberta SuperNet is a Government of Alberta initiative to create an affordable, broadband network equally accessible to every community across the province. The SuperNet provides network connectiv...

The Alberta SuperNet is a Government of Alberta initiative to create an affordable, broadband network equally accessible to every community across the province. The SuperNet provides network connectivity to provincial government offices, libraries, schools, post-secondary institutions and health-care facilities. It is the first undertaking of its kind in Canada.

With 4,700 connections in 422 communities, the SuperNet has approximately 20,000 kilometres of fibre-optic cabling and 2,000 kilometres of wireless links. Where the use of fibre-optic cabling is either too costly or not physically possible, the connection is made by high-capacity wireless data links.

The wireless components are typically found on the outer edges of the edges of the network, with average hop distances of 25 kilometres. The network’s specifications are not only for relatively high bandwidth, but also for an average availability of 99.95% (equivalent to outage times of less than five hours per year).

Morrison Hershfield was contracted by Bell to provide full project and construction management for the wireless components of the Extended Area Network. The scope of Morrison Hershfield’s services included overall project management and design of the radio frequency (RF) system. They also involved the evaluation and acquisition of sites (including crown and First Nations Lands), obtaining development and building permits, and design of the sites (layout, foundations and mechanical and electrical systems). Morrison Hershfield also provided construction management and final inspections and acceptance reviews.

The volume and variety of tasks that had to be performed combined with the geographical vastness of the project made it an unprecedented and extremely challenging undertaking. Approximately 70 Morrison Hershfield staff members in four separate offices — Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto — worked on the project. The many stakeholders included the Government of Alberta, Bell and Axia (the network operator), as well as contractors and sub-consultants. Regular progress meetings were held and Morrison Hershfield developed a database tracking tool specifically for the project to provide real-time reporting. Using modern technology, such as tablet PCs with wireless connectivity and a web-based file collaboration tool, field information was transferred almost instantly to the design centres in Vancouver and Toronto, allowing for a 12-hour design day. These efficiencies ensured that the hundreds of required drawings were always delivered on time.

Safety was most important; the company held special safety training sessions and ultimately there were no injuries or lost-time accidents to any of the company’s personnel.

The Longest Link

Connecting Fort Chipewyan, the most remote Alberta community to receive SuperNet service, was a special challenge. Located 220 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Fort Chipewyan is geographically isolated by muskeg, marshlands and the Athabasca River delta. It can be reached only by plane or winter ice road. It was not possible to install and maintain fibre-optic facilities, so the solution was a wireless connection, referred to as the “Longest Link.” This 121-kilometre long radio hop from the Birch Mountain repeater to Fort Chipewyan is believed to be the longest of its kind. Stations on the Longest Link were constructed within a six-week window using a winter road for access instead of costly heavy-lift helicopters.

Acquiring sites

Another challenge was finding and acquiring property for the towers, which meant negotiating with a cross section of Albertans. For example, schools had concerns about health and safety around the proposed facilities, while private landowners were concerned about the financial impact of towers on their farming operations. The sites included archaeologically sensitive First Nations lands, provincial parks, and the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre, a UNESCO World Heritage site near Fort MacLeod. Morrison Hershfield developed a program that stressed the need to be sensitive to local and cultural issues and which cultivated trust with different communities.

Morrison Hershfield introduced a “lease option” strategy for all the primary site candidates. Once a site was selected, a nominal fee was paid to the landowner in exchange for access to do the necessary legal, engineering and permitting procedures. However, lease payments only began once a site was finally accepted. The strategy allowed the team to investigate multiple site options in an area and saved the client several hundred thousand dollars.

Overall, the project was completed in September 2004, $2 million under the original estimate of $35 million. Morrison Hershfield has been retained by both Bell and Axia to assist in the ongoing expansion and operation of the wireless network.

The SuperNet connects people living in the most remote parts of the province where high-speed connectivity would have been impossible any other way. Now, students can take courses, doctors can consult with specialists and businesses can enter the world market, all from the comfort of their home communities.

Name of project: Alberta SuperNet

Award-winning firm: Morrison Hershfield, Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto. (Jim Warren, P.Eng., Peter Erceg, P.Eng., Scott Steiding, Lillian Siu, P.Eng., Jack McMullen, P.Eng., David Nish, P.Eng., Jeff St. Aubin, Filipp Barmazel, P.Eng.)

Owner: Government of Alberta

Client: Bell

Other key players: Axia (network operator), Planetworks Consulting (radio path design), JAC Acquisitions (site acquisition), P. Machibroda Engineering (geotechnical)

Supplier: Alcatel (radio equipment)


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