New program to improve rural Internet access
By Paul Krajewski
Southern Alberta’s rural and remote communities have some of the slowest and most unreliable Internet connections in the country, John Barlow, Foothills Member of Parliament, said.
But that’s all about to change as they can now tap into the federal government’s Connect to Innovate grant program that will give “last-mile” communities the resources needed to connect to high-speed broadband, he added.
Initiated as part of Canada’s 150th birthday, the Liberal government announced it will dedicate $500 million by 2021 to hard-to-reach areas for infrastructure development, equipment purchases and/or service contracts related to Internet access.
“As part of that program, a map has been developed which identifies areas that have the poorest access to high-speed Internet,” Barlow said.
“My riding is one of the worst in Canada in terms of density and the number of communities that don’t have access.”
Some of the most impacted areas are located west of the Highway 22 corridor, south of Priddis and down past Highway 540, he added.
“One of the messages we are getting across is that it isn’t a want anymore, it’s a must-have,” Barlow explained. “We have to treat it as a utility and essential service.”
The reason parts of southern Alberta are under serviced is the region’s size and diverse landscape, making it financially infeasible to provide the connectivity required in today’s technological climate, he said.
“A lot of the Internet service providers just haven’t seen the return on their investment to invest that much on infrastructure in some of these rural communities,” he said.
“Hopefully this program will entice them to come to some of (them).”
He added, “We want to make sure it is affordable for rural Canadians to be able to (gain) access. If you build the infrastructure with fibre optic or a wireless hub, but it’s too expensive for anyone to use it, then it doesn’t benefit us.”
According to the Connect to Innovate website, applications can be submitted by municipalities or regional partnerships for costs related to infrastructure, hardware and software, satellite leases, equipment rental, contractor services and anything related to broadband access. The government will provide 50 to 90 per cent of the eligible costs for all projects.
“We require an upgrade,” Mayor Larry Spilak, MD of Foothills, said, adding the MD will submit applications for two parcels of under-serviced land in the region in the coming weeks.
“In the days of old, the Internet was slow and not utilized to the extent it is today,” he explained.
“Many people who are moving into the MD are working from their homes now, and that was made (available) through the Internet.”
The unreliable connectivity and slow speeds are greatly affecting residents in some parts of the region, he said.
“When they move out here and they have service that is a third or a quarter of what they’re accustomed to in the cities, it can affect their business,” he added.
“Many have home-based businesses that rely totally on the Internet, and speed is a factor.”
The MD council has made it a priority to increase service to these areas with or without government assistance, Spilak said.
“I don’t care if it’s private enterprise or government, but somebody has to do it,” he explained.
“If there is anything that can happen to get it done, it will happen. We are going to put every effort possible into making the (region’s) Internet something people can live with.”
After years of lobbying the government, conversing with residents and business owners and providing feedback, Councillor Suzanne Oel, MD of Foothills, said it is rewarding to see “things are converging.”
Along with the Connect to Innovate program, she said the push for better connectivity across the country is at the forefront of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) agenda.
On Dec. 21, 2016, the CRTC announced the creation of a fund to ensure minimum broadband Internet access across Canada, setting the standard at 50 Mbps for download and 10 Mbps for upload.
On its website, the commission estimated 90 per cent of homes and businesses nation-wide would meet the target by 2021.
Today’s biggest challenge is providing the increased speed people rely on, Oel said.
Residents want “a better level of service for the rural people to put us in the game with everybody else,” she added.
Oel said the MD is looking into partnerships with regional entities such as the CRP, private industry and other municipalities as options.
The district is exploring bringing fibre optic cable to a more populated area, such as a town or village, then branching that service out through towers to less-populated, under-serviced areas, she said.
“What we are likely going to look at is a combination of services such as fibre along a main line and wireless from there,” she explained.
“We are looking at all kinds of opportunities—laying dark fibre, different Internet service providers, other fibre owners—so there are a whole bunch of moving parts right now that we are investigating.”
Carole MacLeod, deputy mayor of Longview, said the greatest challenge to gaining greater Internet capabilities is cost.
“A village of just over 300 residents struggles with funds to do (projects) of this magnitude,” she explained in an email statement.
“There are many of our residents that have issues with the present Internet provider, so high speed would definitely be beneficial.”
She said the village’s council is working with the CRP and neighbouring municipalities to explore options to which federal funds would be an asset.
For more information on the program, visit the government’s website at www.canada.ca and search Connect to Innovate. Applicants have until March 13 to apply for funding.