Action urged to improve rural internet service

Lack of investment by private companies in rural and remote areas continues to be an obstacle to development

Municipal, provincial and federal governments must come together to ensure rural communities are served with reliable broadband service.

“It is about the absolute survival of these communities. They will get left behind if they don’t have connectivity,” said Jordan Young, chief executive officer for CCI Wireless, a Calgary based co-operative that reaches 110,000 rural Alberta households and businesses.

Young said many people who return to the farm after university are dismayed by the lack of access to wireless technology, which could play a role in their decision to leave later, he said in an interview.

“Without connectivity, Alberta will get left behind. It is not a ‘nice to have,’ it is an absolute imperative,” he said.

Growth in the industry is around 40 percent a year because customers are using more data and have more devices. If the network does not work well, customers get frustrated.

“We have got to get more bandwidth out there based on the way people’s data use is going,” said Graham Fleet, CCI marketing manager.

He said people need to realize that a strong network requires backbone infrastructure.

Lack of investment in rural and remote areas remains an obstacle to development, and Young pointed to the difficulties in getting companies to invest.

“As a capital venture, the business case simply isn’t there. If the business case were there, some for-profit capital venture would have served this area already. It is so expensive to get that connectivity out so you need companies that look at the investment differently.”

As a co-operative, CCI needs to make money but its mandate is also to reinvest over the longer term.

Government and companies must work together to better manage the costs involved with serving a limited customer base.

“It has to be a public-private partnership. There is technology and knowledge and investment that need to happen to maintain the network and keep the network vibrant. The municipality needs to come and address some of the business case issues,” Young said.

The Rural Municipalities Association of Alberta has called for improved access to high-speed internet service as a critical element for economic development in Alberta.

“For rural communities to survive and for us to be able keep our people in rural communities or to attract business or balance our tax base and support our agriculture industry, we need to have a similar service as far as broadband activity goes as what they get in the more populated areas,” said Al Kemmere, chair of the RMA.

“We still haven’t achieved that.”

The impact of limited broadband and cellular is nationwide.

“In order for our agriculture operators to remain competitive in the long run, they need to have a larger level of service and that is why we have advocated to have it considered and declared an essential service much like the phone system was. It took a long time to level that playing field in our province as far as everybody having an equivalent phone service,” he said.

He supports a private sector approach for Alberta with legislative support. He said companies must be encouraged to find technology that can handle a scattered population on rugged geography.

“We need to figure out a mechanism of encouraging the private operators to deliver their service out in the rural communities and don’t let them just go after the low-hanging fruit. They need to also provide a level of service in the areas that are harder to access. That is where we need policy and legislation to guide that,” he said.

In Alberta, about 45 private sector providers deliver internet services.

The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission regulates the service and has said access to broadband internet is a basic telecommunications service. Its goal is to have 90 percent of Canadian homes and businesses with access to fixed broadband services by 2021, with download speeds of at least 50 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps.

The 2016 federal budget included a $500 million program for rural and remote community broadband funding over the next five years as part of a national broadband strategy.

The provincial government leases SuperNet to provide service to government facilities in 429 communities across the province. It also helps internet service providers expand their cables, radios and towers within a community to connect customers to internet gateways in urban Alberta, without the need to build expensive infrastructures.

“We have heard from many farmers and business owners in rural Alberta that internet speeds are low,” said Tina Faiz, spokesperson for Service Alberta.

The ministry is developing a long-term strategy for rural broadband and working with the federal government to improve service, she wrote in an email.

Contact barbara.duckworth@producer.com

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