Huawei working to bring high-speed Internet to a rural hamlet in B.C.
Not everyone’s antsy about getting equipment from Huawei Technologies Co.
China’s biggest technology company announced Friday a pilot project to bring high-speed internet to a Canadian hamlet -- Lac La Hache, or "Lake of the Axe," so named for the unfortunate 19th-century fur trapper who lost his hatchet while chopping a hole in the ice.
The trial -- funded by Huawei and to be carried out with Quesnel, British Columbia-based ABC Communications -- promises to deliver speeds of up to 100 megabits per second. That’s at least double or in some cases quadruple what residents of the 860-person town get now.
"That kind of speed for a lot of areas around here is unheard of," says Al Richmond, the elected representative for Lac La Hache in the regional government.
While tiny in scale, the project underscores how the Chinese giant continues to address a gaping need in remote areas around the world even as it battles an international furor about the security of its equipment. It’s winning over customers with cheap, functional kit and paid-for trials in places largely ignored by larger incumbents. Some two dozen U.S. telecom companies have used Huawei’s equipment to provide services in remote regions.
It’s a particularly odd twist in a Canadian saga: Meng Wanzhou -- Huawei’s chief financial officer and daughter of the company’s billionaire founder Ren Zhengfei -- is living less than 300 miles south of Lac La Hache on bail at her Vancouver house. Her arrest by Canadian officials on a U.S. extradition request alleging fraud has caused an unprecedented diplomatic crisis as China detained two Canadians and sentenced a third to death.
“Huawei products bring urban internet speeds to rural subscribers around the world,” Huawei said in a statement Friday. ABC Communications Chief Executive Officer Bob Allen didn’t respond to emails and phone calls requesting an interview.
Canada has struggled to bring modern communication services across its sprawling geography. While more than 80 percent of the population lives in urban areas with the usual technological trappings, about 6.3 million Canadians are scattered across hinterlands almost as expansive as Europe and stretching as far north as the Arctic Circle. Connectivity -- if available -- is sluggish and spotty. Canadians pay some of the highest rates among developed economies for wireless services.
The country’s telecom regulator ruled in 2016 that all Canadians should have access to high-speed internet, directing the industry to work toward providing universal minimum speeds of 50 megabits per second for downloads and 10 megabits per second for uploads. Huawei said in the statement the pilot will meet that mandate.
“It’s really exciting,” says Richmond, who once installed fiber optics equipment for Telus Corp., one of Canada’s biggest telecoms. “If this equipment works, it will be a new dawn for rural British Columbians -- an opportunity for economic development where people can work from home.”
Huawei’s pilot in Lac La Hache is based on a technology dubbed "Massive MIMO" (short for multiple-input multiple-output), which clumps together antennas to boost efficiency. It’s seen in the industry as a precursor to the next-generation, super-fast 5G wireless networks at the heart of broadening global concerns about the Chinese giant.
U.S., Australia and New Zealand are blocking Huawei out of their 5G networks worried its equipment could potentially be used by the Chinese government for espionage, while other countries including Canada are considering joining them.
But along the picturesque shoreline of Lac La Hache, such concerns seem almost laughably distant. The community is largely comprised of retirees, many who sold their homes in pricey Vancouver in recent years to retreat to a quiet life, says Kyoung Kang, owner of Lake Motel, a wood-clad inn on the main drag.
Kang’s more immediate problem in recent years was guests complaining about the slow, unreliable Internet connection. Things got a bit better after she switched providers a couple years ago but some in the area don’t have a choice, she said. And she still pays Telus $110 a month for 500 gigabytes after which point the connection slows to a crawl.
“It’s still slow and expensive,” Kang says. Lac La Hache, better known today for trophy-sized trout and water skiing than lost axes, is ready to move on. “Something better would be good.”