Funding to boost Alta. rural internet service

The provincial government plans to spend up to $150 million to upgrade and expand access to broadband internet in rural Alberta, improving access to services for thousands of households.

“I am so excited on behalf of all the people I represent because this does fight crime,” said Paul McLauchlin, president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta.

“This does deal with health care. This does deal with rural development. This is how you have smart farm, smart ag — this is how you become a world leader, as the premier and the ministers have talked about, and I have to say this is a great day and I will continue to smile today.”

The initiative was announced by Premier Jason Kenney, Service Alberta Minister Nate Glubish and Associate Minister of Rural Economic Development Nate Horner at a recent news conference in Camrose. Kenney said it is part of Alberta’s Recovery Plan to promote economic growth and job creation, with the total cost of expanding broadband for rural, remote and Indigenous communities expected to be $1 billion.

“This is a fundamental part of our economic strategy, and with this $150 million initial investment, we believe we’ll be able to secure additional federal funds for rural and remote and Indigenous broadband connectivity.”

Further funding will be acquired by leveraging “even larger investments from the private sector telecommunications companies as partners,” he added. Meanwhile, broadband expansion projects will begin as soon as possible, with details to be announced soon, said a provincial statement.

The federal Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said in 2016 that broadband was an essential service. It set a goal for all Canadians to have broadband access by 2030, with data download speeds of at least 50 megabytes per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps.

“Right now, 12 percent of Alberta families, or approximately 200,000 households across Alberta, are lacking the speeds the federal government says are required for adequate internet service,” said Kenney.

“This limits the ability of those communities to attract investment and participate fully in our growing digital economy, as well as to benefit from services like digital health care, for example. And while 12 percent may sound like a small number, most of those homes are located in rural and Indigenous communities, which play a key role in our province.”

The RMA has been conducting an online Internet Performance Test program in partnership with the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), a non-profit organization whose services include managing the .CA internet domain. The program allows rural Albertans to check their internet speeds.

Although the federal government has estimated 32 percent of rural municipalities in Alberta meet the 50/10 standard for broadband, testing has shown the real figure is nine percent, said McLauchlin. The impact of what he called digital poverty in rural areas was brought home during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the closure of things such as schools.

“The fact is that the people I represent, when there was a shutdown, children had to go to a Tim Hortons parking lot (to use wi-fi)…. They had to go to the library parking lot to access their schoolwork online.”

Kenney said about 80 percent of Indigenous communities in Alberta lack access to reliable Internet. Chief Billy Morin of the Enoch Cree Nation said although 20 laptop computers were donated to his community’s school last year, they lacked the connectivity to be effective despite the fact the community is adjacent to Edmonton.

He said broadband will make possible initiatives such as telehealth services through local regional health authorities, helping people such as elders who struggle with travelling to cities for treatment.

McLauchlin likened the significance of the broadband initiative to what happened after the introduction of electricity to rural Alberta. Broadband is particularly important for the adoption by producers of things such as smart farming and precision agriculture, he said during an earlier interview.

The pandemic also caused people to start working from home, a trend that formed the basis of a recent campaign by the town of Trochu to attract new residents away from cities.

“I’m the reeve of Ponoka County and the first thing (newcomers) ask is not how great the governance is, not how low the taxes are, they want to know what access to broadband is available,” McLauchlin said during the news conference.

Here is the news conference that announced the funding.