Rural Alta. watches internet strategy

Cabinet minister responsible for broadband services says work continues: NDP skeptical

Rural communities in Alberta continue to cross their fingers for a plan that can help them connect to high-performing broadband, hoping the new government doesn’t put past efforts on hold.

Speaking at the recent Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) convention in Edmonton, town and village representatives wondered what the new UCP government plans to do with the former NDP’s rural broadband strategy.

Without strong internet, they said, their communities will suffer and possibly die because businesses will leave for better service elsewhere. Without it, attracting people who can work remotely becomes impossible.

“With the way that things are going agriculturally, and with automation, communication and data transfer, the lack of a good rural broadband network really hurts people in the area,” said Jim Willett, mayor of Coutts, Alta.

“We can’t afford to lose more people in our rural areas. This strategy is very important.”

Despite concerns, there is some movement on addressing broadband issues, but there are slim details on what the strategy will look like.

Service Alberta Minister Nate Glubish said the province is gathering information to help address rural broadband challenges.

Glubish said the province plans to fight for dollars from the federal government to help pay for the $1 billion that Alberta spent on the SuperNet, a network of fibre and wireless that connects schools, hospitals, libraries and municipal offices in 429 communities.

Glubish said the province still needs to figure out where all of the fibre is, see what communities could be connected with existing fibre and determine if other non-fibre technologies, such as wireless, can be used to provide high-performing service.

He also wants to work with municipalities, regional economic development associations and telecommunications companies to determine challenges and set priorities.

“In some communities, fibre will be viable,” he said.

“The economies of scale are going to drive what fibre can accomplish in a responsible and prudent matter. Where fibre is not practical, we need to look to wireless technology.”

According to Taylor Warwick Consulting, an information and communications technology consulting company, 83 percent of Albertans have access to services that meet the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s objective of download speeds of 50 megabits per second and upload speeds of 10 Mbps.

Outside Edmonton and Calgary, only 63 percent of the population meets that objective.

However, the issue of broadband has also become political.

Glubish took aim at the former NDP government, saying it didn’t move on this file. He told delegates at the AUMA convention the UCP inherited no broadband strategy.

The NDP, however, did work on it, conducting rural broadband consultations with municipalities, First Nations, telecommunications companies and businesses.

The strategy was set to be revealed in the spring, but the election stopped it from going forward. The NDP then lost power.

Jon Carson, the NDP Service Alberta critic, refuted Glubish’s remarks, saying they weren’t truthful.

“We consulted extensively with stakeholders,” he said. “They put in a lot of work to come up with a strategy.”

Carson said it sounds like Glubish is delaying the strategy because he hasn’t announced concrete details to move it forward.

He said there are more than 600,000 Albertans who would benefit from stronger broadband.

The government, Carson added, needs to empower municipalities to make decisions so they can work with private industry and economic development associations to achieve high internet speeds.

Willett, who listened to Glubish’s remarks about rural broadband at the AUMA convention, said he was a little taken aback by the minister’s response.

Willett said it was his impression that many Service Alberta department employees were still working on this file.

“It surprised me,” he said.

“I think it’s possibly a case of a new government still getting familiar with some of these things.”

Many municipalities are hoping the strategy will help catalyze development of broadband in their communities, allowing them to work with small or large telecommunications companies or even develop their own network.

Telecommunications giant Telus recently announced it will spend $16 billion in the province, with some of that money going to rural broadband.

While communities see opportunity in the investment, they hope Telus actually commits. There is no indication yet on where the money will be spent, and communities fear they won’t be serviced if Telus can’t get a return on investment.

As well, if Telus buys smaller telecommunications companies, there would be less competition and fewer opportunities to strike partnerships.

“We are encouraged but hesitant with the Telus announcement,” said Peter Casurella, executive director of the SouthGrow Regional Initiative, an economic development alliance made up of 24 southern Alberta communities.

“It sounds great on paper, and Telus has done a lot of good to help rural Alberta, but we still need to know the details,” he said.

“It would be great news if it makes major investments in rural broadband and gets more communities connected.”

Casurella said the province should approach broadband in a way that empowers municipalities, companies and economic development agencies to develop their own plans.

He also thinks changing federal regulations would help.

He said today’s rules make it difficult for smaller players to gain market share. He would like to see changes where companies can share infrastructure, rather than requiring them to build and use their own.

Craig Dobson, president of Taylor Warwick Consulting, said towns could consider treating broadband like a utility, as they do with water and electricity.

He said he understands if residents oppose paying for it with their taxes, but without broadband businesses will vanish, which would significantly hurt communities.

“If the businesses leave, the kids don’t come back and the school closes,” he said.

“When the school closes, you are really hooped.”

Dobson said he has no problem with government helping rural communities while private industry deals with places where they can make a profit.

“There would be a high initial cost to do fibre everywhere, but fibre can be good for 40 years, is upgradable and it doesn’t have to be maintained much,” he said.

“When you look at how long it can last, the cost on that basis is then quite reasonable.”

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