GEORGES CORRIVEAU says he may be the only politician in charge of a department called the ``Information Highway.'' New Brunswick's Minister of State for the Information Highway is the title on his business card, which comes with both phone and fax numbers and his Internet address.
``I use it to get E-mail from across the country,'' explains Mr. Corriveau, who says other Canadian provinces want to know how his small province has become a telecommunications powerhouse. ``New Brunswick is looked at as a model in Canada of using telecommunications to create growth.''
New Brunswick is one of the poorest provinces in Canada, with 752,000 people spread thinly throughout small towns and villages. It has a high unemployment rate - about 11 percent. Its traditional industries are forestry, agriculture (especially potatoes), and fishing, which is now in decline.
Today, the province is working to change its economic fortunes by relying on work related to the phone industry instead of natural resources. Its government has joined with the government-controlled New Brunswick Telephone Company (NBTel), which is 40 percent owned by Bell Canada Enterprises of Montreal, to make telecommunications the province's newest resource. That is because New Brunswick has one of the most advanced telephone systems in North America.
NBTel is the first phone company on the continent to have gone fully digital. All its switches are computerized, so the system can provide advanced new services. For instance, everyone in the province has access to his or her own voice mailbox. Features such as ``call return'' and ``three-way calling'' are part of the basic phone service. More than 90 percent of customers have touch-tone service. The network is sophisticated: 70 percent of residences and businesses are located within 2 1/2 miles of the fibre-optic network. Installation and repair services operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
After 10 years of working on a telecommunications strategy, New Brunswick has the highest economic-growth rate of Canada's four eastern provinces. In the past three years, telecommunications has created 5,000 new jobs for the province in the area of call centers alone. The call centers include services such as ``1-800 Northern,'' which handles calls from Northern Telecom customers in Canada and the northeastern United States, and a new 500-employee telephone-banking center being installed by the Royal Bank of Canada.
``Information technology is the great equalizer,'' says New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna. ``With information technology, we can diversify our base from traditional resource sectors. We can turn our small population and geographic location from a disadvantage to an advantage. We can access the major markets without ever leaving the province and connect to the entire world without ever moving a foot.''
The infrastructure work of the 1980s made the marketing bonanza of the '90s possible. ``If you go back 10 years, we were an engineering company, and in the last five years we have taken a marketing approach,'' says Helena Cain, senior manager of new-business ventures at NBTel. ``Without the digital network and the fiber optics, we wouldn't be able to do what we're doing.''
NBTel provides multimedia kiosks, which allow customers to do banking by looking at a statement on a screen built into the telephone while talking to a person or computer voice at the other end. That service will enter a trial period later this year.
NBTel is now spending $300 million (US$219 million) to increase its capacity to businesses and households. In the phone business, increasing capacity to accommodate video and high-speed data transmission is known as ``bandwidth.'' The amount of information an ordinary phone line can carry is limited. TV pictures and large amounts of computer data need high-capacity fibre-optic cable or the coaxial cable used to bring cable TV into homes. Material sent down a fibre-optic cable requires a $20,000 optical reader in each home or business to convert it into a usable form. So, in an effort to give everyone more bandwidth, NBTel has come up with a hybrid.
``It's a fiber-coax-hybrid access network,'' says Scott Johnston, process and technology manager at NBTel. ``What it means is the customer can consume as much bandwidth as they want, whether they are shipping audio, text, or video into the network.''
For businesses, that means being able to move huge amounts of data quickly. For the individual, it means being able to ask a question of a teacher in a classroom 100 miles away and get an answer immediately, or play video games on demand. New Brunswick hopes it means prosperity by relying on technology, not just trees, fish, and potatoes.