The federal government has awarded Ecopia a $3.39 million CAD contract to use its artificial intelligence (AI) mapping services to help in the deployment of high-speed internet across rural Canada.
“High-speed internet is essential to ensure all Canadians can participate in the digital economy.”
Ecopia plans to use its AI mapping systems to mine a variety of geospatial datasets, and identify service locations for broadband across rural Canada, including in many locations in remote and Indigenous communities.
The data will be used to identify connectivity gaps and accelerate the deployment of broadband infrastructure across the country. The map is currently in production and will be delivered in March 2022.
“High-speed internet is essential to ensure all Canadians can participate in the digital economy, and Canadians in rural and remote communities have long had less access to high-speed Internet than those living in urban areas,” said Gudie Hutchings, minister for rural economic development. “More precise geospatial data will help us plan and build the telecommunications infrastructure required to address this connectivity gap.”
Ecopia employs proprietary machine learning algorithms and AI to convert high-resolution images of earth into high-definition vector maps, offering a digital representation of reality.
“Essentially, we are training a computer to interpret imagery and other datasets as a human would – in this case, to identify buildings that require broadband internet access,” Jon Lipinski, co-founder and president of Ecopia, told BetaKit.
The startup claims that its HD vector maps are used for hundreds of commercial and government applications across over 100 countries around the world.
Founded in 2013, Ecopia currently has over 50 employees. The startup has primarily been bootstrapped since its beginnings, with organic growth through customer contract revenue, and non-dilutive government support, according to Lipinski.
The startup received $6.7 million in 2019 from Sustainable Development Technology Canada to convert high resolution images of the earth into HD vector maps using its AI.
Lipinski said that a prerequisite to filling gaps in rural broadband internet requires stakeholders to first identify precisely where coverage gaps exist, and then plan methods to fill those gaps.
“Current maps are too coarse to identify broadband-served/unserved locations on a building-by-building basis,” he said. “So, regardless of the mix of methods used to serve the broadband internet, precise mapping data is still required to understand where the gaps are on a building-by-building basis, and to determine whether all the gaps were, in fact, filled.”
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According to the federal government’s Universal Broadband Fund, significant rural and remote areas of Canada do not have access to high-speed Internet. The latest CRTC Communications Monitoring Report said only 46 percent of rural households and 35 percent of First Nations households on reserves have access to 50/10 Mbps service. This is compared to nearly 99 percent access in urban households.
The federally funded mapping project comes at a time when numerous companies are looking to space, rather than the land, in order to provide high-speed internet even while the federal government and many of the provincial governments are still pursuing broadband projects on the ground
Satellite communications company Telesat is working to launch a low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite network (called Telesat Lightspeed), and is a notable Canadian competitor to Elon Musk’s Starlink and Jeff Bezos’s Project Kuiper.
Telesat is expected to launch its first LEO satellites in the next few years, possibly in the first half of 2024. The 2024 timeline is notable as Musk’s Starlink has the first-mover advantage with satellites already launched, and operations in the United States and parts of Canada.
LEO technology is meant to provide more affordable, high-speed connectivity services, including LTE and 5G. The satellite tech could prove valuable for rural parts of Canada where internet connectivity is less accessible. According to federal reports, just 41 percent of rural households and approximately one-quarter of Indigenous communities in Canada have access to fast, reliable broadband internet service.
The technology has already shown promise; a report from 2021 found that Starlink internet has faster median download speeds than fixed broadband in Canada. Starlink has launched more than 1,890 satellites to date. However, some people have raised concerns about the price tag that comes along with the service.
Space tech startup Kepler Communications also operates in the LEO market, and recently secured $72.6 million CAD in Series B funding to fuel its growth.
Despite the leaps in LEO technology, the federal government is still committed to funding land-based, broadband projects. The government’s $2.75 billion Universal Broadband Fund supports high-speed internet projects across the country for rural and remote communities.
The funding includes up to $50 million for mobile Internet projects that primarily benefit Indigenous peoples, including projects along highways and roads where mobile connectivity is lacking; and up to $750 million for what the government calls large, high-impact projects.
For his part, Lipinski said: “The data Ecopia will create through this initiative will help the Government of Canada and other stakeholders in the telecommunications industry plan and build the infrastructure required to address the connectivity gap we have in Canada – helping to bridge this digital divide.”
Photo by Lars Kienle on Unsplash.