23 November 2006

Fibre optic document thin on details

A document on the fibre optic deal, tabled in the House of Assembly this week contains largely generic information and potential savings for government telecommunications from the deal are based on a verbal suggestion by Persona Communications.

Bond Papers obtained a copy of the document. Following are excerpts from the document. Bond Papers observations are contained inside square brackets "[ ]".

The document, titled Report Excerpts, was prepared by EWA-Canada for the Department of Innovation, Trade and Rural Development. It contains portions of two tasks assigned by the provincial government.

In total, the document contains 25 pages. Of that, only nine contain concrete information and appear to be from an executive of the complete EWA report. Two pages are the title page and a contents listing. The balance - 14 pages - is a summary of impact assessments for expanded broadband service in other jurisdictions and four pages containing brief corporate profiles for the companies involved in the assessment. No specific cost/benefit analysis for the Persona proposal is included. Any references to specific numbers/costs were in the released document, in keeping with provisions of the provincial Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

EWA was tasked to "review overall reasonableness of the proposal made by Persona Communications Inc. For Government to invest in a new fibre optic connection to North American communications networks". (p.2)

EWA recommended revisions to the proposal. It recommended:

- Persona be required to post a performance bond;

- that the provincial government share of fibre be increased to XX on land and sea versus XX "fully redundant" fibre suggested by Persona; [BP note: specific numbers deleted in government-released copy] and,

- future contracts should ensure "open and unencumbered access to infrastructure" in accordance with Canadian regulations and standards.

Summary and observations:

1. According to EWA, the Persona business case provides "internal rates of return" to Persona of XX% and unspecified net present value. This includes government's $15 million and the CDLI project. [BP note: CDLI = cross-island redundancy begun in 2005 with federal and provincial financing; numbers deleted in original).

2. The business case does not include "ancillary benefits to Persona from new connections and new services" as a result of the project. [BP note: This important since persona clearly stands to see an expansion of its own business from the installation of fibre optic capacity in Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia.]

3. "This project would require an interested equity partner who can derive some benefits other than immediate cash flows." (p.3) [BP note: This may mean that prospective commercial partners would not be prepared to accept losses or very low returns on investment. The only way the whole project becomes viable is with public money and with little or no expectation of a direct financial return.]

4. "Only limited approvals" in Nova Scotia had been received up to the time of the report (June 2006) for the installations on land in that province. Upwards of half the land distance of new cable is in Nova Scotia in order to connect to the nearest multi-fibre hub. (p.3)

5. Given the limited rates of return to Persona noted above, the project would require additional funding by one or more of the partners to cover cost over-runs resulting from issues such as unanticipated geographical challenges. (p.3)

6. At the time of the report, the provincial government did not have in mind a use for the fibre it would acquire other than as a safeguard against future monopolization in the telecom industry. (p.4) [BP note: This confirms that the provincial government has no telecommunications strategy, despite claims to the contrary, and that this project was not assessed in terms of potential benefit to government's own telecom requirements.]

7. At $15 million, government would be overpaying for the quantity of fibre contained in the original proposal. (p.4) [BP note: EWA recommended increasing the amount of fibre and location purchased by government.]

8. Benefits expected fall into general categories of more business opportunities and improved opportunities for research-related telecommunications. (p.5) [BP note: At no point does EWA provide an indication of concrete examples of cost reductions, actual business opportunities or any other benefits that can be quantified. This is due, in part, to the very tight time frames given to EWA to produce the report.]

9. One benefit is vague and almost incomprehensible as written: "Infrastructure conservation by permitting work to be done closer to home and reducing the Newfoundland diasporas [sic]." (p.5)

10. EWA states that it was not possible to quantify benefits in the limited time available. (p.5) [BP note: less than four weeks. On page C-9, the consultants refer to the theoretical or generally accepted benefits of broadband versus dial-up in terms of transmission capacity (1 gigabit per second versus 1 megabit per second). There is no discussion in the document of existing fibre capacity and data transmission rates for the province as a whole. As a result this comparison - which the Premier used in the House of Assembly - is virtually meaningless. The province already has broadband for the university and other users in major centres.

In the same section, the consultant speculates that the province may become attractive for projects involving large data transmission. The example cited is the digitization of the Library of Congress. No assessment is made of the existing competition for such services and what, if any, competitive advantages might exist for such work to be done in Newfoundland and Labrador. Again, it is an entirely fanciful example of a potential advantage. ]

11. With respect to overall financial benefits to the provincial government for its telecom costs, "Persona has verbally suggested a possible savings of 50% or $XXXXXX". (p.5) [BP note: While the Premier and others have referred to this figure, there appears to be no concrete evidence it is anything other than a ballpark estimate by Persona. As well, the savings appear to be related to provincial government telecoms expenditures. Some government comment makes it appear the savings estimate is for the province as a whole, i.e. government plus the consumer market.]

12. There is no reference to the anticipated benefits of $400 million over the expected 40 year lifespan of the fibre. This appears to be a calculation by government based on the unsubstantiated verbal claim by Persona referred to above.

13. No engineering appraisal was released at all. There is no examination in the released portion of the report of the implications of stringing the cables along telephone poles versus using buried cable as in the existing Aliant project.

14. The consultant recommended a formal process for assessing unsolicited proposals.