Sask. broadband expansion pleases farmers

The Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan had previously called for more spending to improve rural internet service. | Getty Images

Crown corporation estimates 75 percent of the province will have access to fibre optic network when project completed

SaskTel’s announcement that it will invest $50 million to bring fibre optic broadband to 24 more communities is good news for rural Saskatchewan, says the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan.

A rural connectivity task force of APAS members earlier this year called for more spending particularly on fibre optics, which they described as the gold standard of broadband delivery.

“Today’s announcements align with the recent recommendations of our task force,” said the chair, Jeremy Welter. “This is good news for Saskatchewan’s rural communities and these improvements will help increase their prosperity and resilience in the future.”

The $50 million doubles the money available in the Rural Fibre Initiative and brings in service to the communities, and more than 30,000 people, earlier than planned. The infrastructure should be in place by the end of 2023.

The initiative was announced last December and is designed to serve more than 40 rural areas.

The communities for the first three phases of the project have been finalized; the additional 24 are part of phase four.

Phase 1 includes Balgonie, Biggar, Langham and Pilot Butte, where construction has begun and should be complete by the end of March 2022.

Later this year, construction begins in the Phase 2 communities of Kindersley, Meadow Lake and Rosetown.

Phase 3 starts next year in Canora, Carlyle, Esterhazy, Fort Qu’Appelle, Hudson Bay, Indian Head, Kamsack, La Ronge, Lumsden, Maple Creek, Moosomin, Shaunavon, Watrous and Wynyard.

SaskTel estimates that when the initiative is complete about 75 percent of the province will have access to a fibre optic network.

A news release also said that SaskTel will investigate partnerships to connect more communities beyond those in the RFI program. A pilot program will look at whether another internet service provider or contractor can deliver fibre optic broadband to these other places.

During recent Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities division meetings, external communications manager Greg Jacobs described fibre optics as the gold standard mostly because it offers the best upload speeds.

He said customers before the pandemic generally used their broadband more for download, but with students learning online and parents working at home the upload speeds became a concern for some.

The disadvantage to fibre optics is it is “extraordinarily complex to deploy and extraordinarily expensive.”

It costs about $2.6 million to bring fibre optics to a town, Jacobs said, compared to hundreds of thousands of dollars for wireless towers, depending on size.

Through the RFI, SaskTel is upgrading old networks to improve service.

“We’re ripping the copper cable out of the ground and off the poles and we’re replacing that with fibre optic cable,” he said. “It’s a massive undertaking. You’re talking about thousands of kilometres of copper that need to be replaced.”

Other types of delivery methods include DSL, cable modems and fixed wireless. The latter is more common in rural areas where SaskTel and small providers can collaborate.

Jacobs said a limitation of fixed wireless is that it can only serve a limited number of customers with one tower.

Low earth orbit satellites are touted as a solution of the future. Jacobs said they still lag behind traditional service because of the distance from Earth but SaskTel is monitoring the development of services such as Starlink.

Beta tests are showing some great speeds, he said.

“But what we’re concerned about (is) what happens when they launch this service commercially,” he said. “It’s a shared service very similar to fixed wireless in that you can only serve a specific number of customers in a service area without reducing the threshold of broadband you can deliver.”

The federal government has said it wants everyone to have access to 50 megabits per second download speed and 10 mbps for uploads by 2030.

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