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Wearing passion on his sleeve: Bill St. Arnaud

After talking to Bill St. Arnaud for a few minutes, there is no mistaking Canada's place among the nations. "In the past," says Arnaud, "Canada always followed the United States, but today we are deve...


March 1, 2001  


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After talking to Bill St. Arnaud for a few minutes, there is no mistaking Canada’s place among the nations. “In the past,” says Arnaud, “Canada always followed the United States, but today we are developing our own path and the world is following us.”

The 49-year-old St. Arnaud is in an ideal position to comment on such things. After all, he’s senior director of network projects at the Canadian Network for Advancement of Research, Industry and Education (CANARIE) in Ottawa, established in 1993.

CANARIE has played a large role in advocating what the industry calls “customer-empowered networks.” This briefly explains one of St. Arnaud’s governing passions: that every home should have access to Gigabit Ethernet within five years. The chief advantage of customer-empowered networks, he notes, “is that more users own dark fiber and condominium wavelengths.”

Canada blazing trails

That Canada is taking the lead in this area should come as no surprise to industry watchers. Pioneering work has been steadfastly taking place for years. Simply put, the aim is to displace the centralized telco model that has been around for decades, which St. Arnaud argues, has outgrown its usefulness in the Internet Age. “It’s the difference between a command economy and a capitalist economy,” he says. “The command economy of current networks has a huge bureaucracy, where each layer is managed.”

This is a liability. For one, the telco model relies on queuing theory and multiplexing efficiencies — that not all customers use the network simultaneously. Such a model, however, “is fundamentally flawed on an economic basis,” St. Arnaud argues, mainly because the Internet changes things. “With the Internet, it’s quite conceivable that all users can be ‘bursting’ data at the same time — you just can’t get multiplexing efficiencies.”

The sum result is that carriers operating with the traditional model face a bleak prospect: the cost of operating a network for the Internet increases with the square of the revenues. “That’s profound,” St. Arnaud notes. “To be sure, one can expect many phone companies to exit a business in which losses mount.”

No doubt, this presents a golden opportunity for those developing and deploying disruptive technologies, so called because they tend to disrupt or displace reigning technologies. This is a good thing, St. Arnaud says. “These [customer-empowered] technologies will allow customers to control the wavelengths and a particular part of the network, giving them more flexibility and freedom.”

As for the fortunes of telcos, he says those that quickly adopt the new model will become significant players. “Some carriers have been listening,” says St. Arnaud, referring to the notable example of Bell Canada, which won the contract for Alberta’s SuperNet project. “They are building a condominium network, which will be open to their competitors. That’s novel and not the way telephone companies normally operate.”

Giving credit to the feds

So, how did this scenario come about? According to St. Arnaud, “The unsung hero in all this is the government of Canada, from the Prime Minister down, who has been a very strong supporter of CANARIE. Because of their support, we’ve had funding to deploy such initiatives as helping wire schools and universities with fiber.”

As well, the feds set up a Broadband task Force in 2000, headed by David Johnston, president of Waterloo University in Ontario. Its aim is to ensure Canada retains its top ranking in optical technology. But Canada can’t expect to rest on its laurels; it ought to keep an eye on the sleeping giant next door. “The Americans are keenly interested in what we’re doing. It may take them longer to get their act together, but once they do, they [the US] can very quickly race past us,” St. Arnaud says.

But America will have to work hard if it expects to overtake Canada as a leader in optical technology. “We have, of course, companies like Nortel and JDS Uniphase, but also a host of small companies in Montreal, Ottawa and British Columbia that are in this optical space and are developing innovative products to suit customer-empowered networks,” he says.

St. Arnaud spends a good part of his day responding to hundreds of e-mails. “I could live without my phone, could do without my TV,” he says, “but I couldn’t do without my e-mail.”

Yet, as forceful a technology advocate as St. Arnaud is, he’s realistic about the need to get away from it all. He has built a log cabin an hour’s drive from Ottawa, which is a throwback to an earlier era. It has no electricity, no telephone and no Internet connection. Such is an increasing trend among high-tech workers in search of “balance”.

“I go from one extreme, from being totally divorced from the modern world and living in the 19th century,” he says, “to being totally enveloped in the 21st century world of e-mail.”CS

Perry J. Greenbaum, a Montreal-based freelance writer, can be reached at saltpub@sympatico.ca.


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