Let’s start at the start with the company name: Start. Whatever else partners Peter Rocca and Darryl Olthoff did right – and there’s a lot in that category – they get a standing ovation for registering the name Start.ca 16 years ago, when the Internet was running around in short pants trying to decide what it would become.
We push start buttons all day long – to fire up the coffee maker, to hear our music, and increasingly to engage the ignition of our cars. If you use certain iterations of Windows, you even push start to stop, but that’s another story.
Start.ca is just a great name for a company that provides a basket of high-tech services, but is based squarely on the proposition that its basket has better products for less money, backed by superior customer service. The company has thrived by luring customers away from giant telecom providers: customers looking to start something new, to make a fresh start, to start taking control of their Internet, phone and (coming soon to a big screen near you) television service. Start.ca says it all.
It wasn’t always so. Rocca and Olthoff began the business based on an early bulletin board system (BBS) they were running while studying computer programming at Fanshawe College in the mid 1990s. Back then, the company went by the more prosaic name of Multiboard Communications. After graduation, they kept the board going and devoted more energy to it.
“After a year, we had about 100 customers,” Rocca recalls. It’s worth noting that was considered promising. One part hobby, one part business, the bulletin board used 16 modems connected using SLIP protocol, the forerunner to PPP protocol.
Eventually, there were enough people looking to get in on whatever the Internet was, enough people assembling their own computers and seeking like-minded people online. From those humble roots, Rocca, 44, and Olthoff, 43, built a company that today has 130 employees and more than 50,000 customers.
It’s the next step, however, that has people talking. Start.ca is on the leading edge of the fibre optic revolution in Southwestern Ontario, poised to grow more quickly than it ever has, offering customers a quantum leap in technology -- as ever, at a price the big players can’t, or won’t, match.
The walk from his job at the Arcane Cube on York Street to his apartment on Waterloo Street takes Jamieson Roberts about 15 minutes. But it’s like he’s walking through a time portal where the cutting edge technology he uses developing websites and social media for Arcane is stripped away before he gets home.
“We’re an Internet-driven family. We don’t have cable TV or a landline. We stream shows and use our cell phones,” says Roberts, 30. “I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to have a fibre optic connection at work and then come home to the ridiculous service we get from the major ISPs. They have bandwidth caps and everything is so slow. Having 30 Mbps download speed and 5 Mbps upload speed pisses me off to be honest.”
While many of us are conditioned to accept slow Internet at home and have figured out ways of cajoling extra megabytes each month by threatening to change Internet providers, expectations for some are changing.
Roberts and his wife Nadia have a baby daughter who will grow up watching shows on demand, streamed on devices that haven’t been invented yet. She and her friends will look at today’s Internet, delivered to homes via copper wires, the same way millennials today view fax machines, as amusing historical relics with no relevance to their lives.
The family has already eschewed Rogers and Bell in favour of a small alternative provider, but Roberts is ready to jump to Start this year. He will do so with even greater enthusiasm if Start has managed to bring fibre optic connectivity to his building.
“I will switch to Start because the service is great and it’s cheaper than Rogers or Bell,” he says. “But if and when they get fibre optic in here, that will be a complete game changer.”
Fibre optic connection is the latest thing Start is rolling out for its customers, but unlike previous products and upgrades, it can only do so in fits and starts, working with local governments, businesses and landlords to slowly lay the magic glass cables needed to transport words and pictures at roughly two-thirds the speed of light.
Often when Canadians hear the letters CRTC, they cringe because the communications regulator as often as not is imposing conditions and restrictions on what and how Canadians can listen to music and watch content. It is CRTC regulations, after all, that allow Canadian TV networks to simulcast U.S. shows, hijacking the American channel for the duration of a broadcast, inserting Canadian commercials into dramas and on-field clutter into football games.
But the CRTC also makes an effort to rein in the power of Bell and Rogers in the telecom world, requiring the behemoths to lease their infrastructure to little guys like Start. And that’s why Start has been able to offer Internet and Internet-based phone service to customers across Ontario for nearly two decades.
“We pay Rogers or Bell or Cogeco to use their lines,” Rocca says. “We’re technologically agnostic. We work with whoever has access to a given customer. We’re using their lines, but it’s our signal. We are connecting our customers to the Internet using our equipment, supported by our people.”
If it wanted to, Start could wait for the telecom giants to install fibre optic cable and then lease space as they do now on copper wires. Bell sells its Fibe product as a fibre optic product, which is true as far as it goes. But it goes only to a central location in a given neighbourhood. From there the signal goes into individual houses and businesses through the same old copper wire that carries the phone signal and current Sympatico Internet signal. It’s like you’re zipping down the 401 at 120 km/h until you get to Woodstock, where construction has funneled all the traffic into one lane. Except it’s worse, because the construction never ends, and going from fibre optic to copper is more like shutting down all the lanes and forcing traffic to drive on the painted white lane divider.
Rather than wait for the major telecoms to get around to installing fibre optic, and even then being hamstrung because the final 50 feet of delivery is via copper wire, Start.ca changed its entire strategy.
“We decided to put all our focus on laying our own fibre optic cable in London. We’ve stopped running ads outside London,” Rocca says. “We still offer Internet access to the rest of the province, but our investments right now are in fibre optic here. We’re doing our own thing and connecting people directly.”
Centennial Hall, Budweiser Gardens and Covent Garden Market are all on Start.ca fibre optic. So are a handful of businesses, including tech success Digital Extremes, which was one of the first to sign up. Tricar’s Azure condo high-rise on Talbot Street will be one of the largest residential buildings served by Start fibre optics.
“We’re focused on downtown primarily right now,” Rocca says. “If you’re downtown, the odds are pretty good you can get our fibre optic service.”
In an office at the company’s York Street office, there are giant maps of various neighbourhoods and areas of the city targeted for fibre optic expansion. Old South, Hyde Park and Fanshawe Park Road are among the areas on the drawing board, as well as the airport. Each cluster requires its own unique plan for gaining access and laying cable. Sometimes Start crews can piggyback with planned construction or renovation. Sometimes they dig and bury on their own.
Either way, thousands of London homes and business addresses either have access to Start fibre optic service or will very soon.
With so much capacity in its growing fibre optic network, the company is about to launch another major initiative: TV. By April 1, Rocca expects to launch Start TV, a service that will give viewers more flexibility in how they watch content. It will be available across the Start market, whether there’s fibre optic cable or not. Without it, the benefits will be the lower cost and a nifty interface that Rocca says will incorporate a variety of sources like Netflix and Apple TV, not to mention a universal PVR that works with all screens in the house.
In areas with Start fibre optic, the service will be that much better. Either way, Rocca is excited to get into the TV game, something he and Olthoff have wanted to do for years. “There are so many regulations you have to work through. It has take a while to get here, but we’re finally ready.”
To accommodate expected growth, Start is getting ready to move for the second time in three years. It is renovating and adding to the former London Metal Works building at 675 York St. The 80,000 square feet is a huge jump from the 13,000 square feet at its current location at 148 York St. “It will accommodate about 350 people, which is where we expect to be in five years,” Rocca says.
Part of the new headquarters will be a separate 9,000-square-foot data centre that will service yet another arrow in the Start quiver. The company rents out space to businesses that want to run their servers off-site in a secure, climate-controlled setting, connected by fibre optic cable.
“They run like they’re located on the business site, but they are here with us,” Rocca says, walking through the existing bank of servers at the current headquarters. The company will continue to house some servers there but will add 200 racks that could house more than 1,000 servers, secured with a power back-up system at its new facility.
It’s another way to profit from the growing fibre optic network and another reason to lay its own cable.
Meanwhile, landlords and builders are signing up all the time for Start’s fibre optic service. “We’re working closely with Start to bring fibre into our buildings, most of which are downtown,” says Alicia Nelms, vice-president of City Centre Apartments, which has 110 units in the city.
“We’re having it installed in four properties on Wolfe Street and another two on Central. And we’ll do more after that. Fibre optic is a benefit for our tenants and a reason some of them will choose to live in one of our buildings. It’s a good deal for Start because they come in to one building and get multiple addresses. Once people see the service, they choose it over Rogers or Bell. The speed is amazing and it’s less expensive.”
Start is betting that will be the reaction of many people as the company arrives in neighbourhoods and high rises with the offer of fibre optic Internet, home phone and TV service.
The company is being conservative, hoping for 2,000 TV customers in the first year. But it has registered in most of the province’s population centres, a dozen cities in all, ready to provide its own brand of TV to an expanding number of people who like paying less and receiving more.