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It’s time to get serious about rural broadband

By Alanna Hnatiw Mayor, Sturgeon County

What do you use the internet for?

It’s almost a silly question because, in 2021, the answer is: nearly everything.

Municipalities have long been ringing the alarm bell of why high-speed internet is a necessity, not a luxury. Since the early 2000s and broken promises of the Last Mile of the Supernet, rural municipalities have been calling upon the provincial and federal governments to address rural connectivity.

Today’s world requires online connectivity to provide better access for consumers and businesses to digital goods and services, creating the right conditions for digital networks to flourish, and maximizing the potential of the digital economy. More specifically, access to high-speed internet needs to be a flagship initiative for all Canadians.

When we asked our community in a recent survey, the responses were nearly unanimous: internet access is vital. Yet, most residents and businesses in Sturgeon County are dissatisfied with their current internet service. The impacts of this lack of service have been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many people working and learning from home, and families fighting for the little bit of bandwidth available to them.

I could cite reports and studies on the economics of broadband, but the fact of the matter is simply this: there is little motivation for the private sector to build out high-speed internet in rural areas because there is little to no financial profit in doing so.

Without private sector investment, the only way to improve the situation is for government to take the lead, and that is exactly what Sturgeon County Council decided to do when we adopted our new broadband strategy on December 8, 2020. In 2021, Sturgeon County will borrow up to $7.3 million to improve rural connectivity as part of the first phase of the strategy, which includes a pilot project in the Villeneuve area. In this model, the County will fund a portion of capital costs, partnering with the private sector to operate the service, and customers paying an affordable amount per month for internet service.

That the County must commit this level of funding is concerning when there is so much federal money on the table.

In October, the federal government revealed that the Canada Infrastructure Bank includes $2 billion for broadband for underserved communities. The problem? No one knows how it will be distributed.

There is also $1.75 billion available through the federal Universal Broadband Fund. Sturgeon County, however, remains ineligible for this funding because the data utilized by the Government of Canada is inaccurate. This is why we have been asking our residents and businesses to take the internet speed test offered through the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) – to ensure the true service speeds in Sturgeon County are accurately reported.

Further, despite ongoing advocacy by municipalities, directly and through the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) and the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA), the Government of Alberta has yet to establish a broadband strategy or commit to any funding to support rural internet development. This lack of commitment does little to support economic growth in rural areas.

To put it bluntly: a community without broadband is unviable.

People move to rural areas for a variety of reasons. There is a quality of life that cannot be replicated in a city. It was always understood that certain amenities and luxuries had to be sacrificed to enjoy the rural lifestyle. But as our way of living continues to shift to a more digital space – for work, education, and simple day-to-day business – it is becoming increasingly difficult to live anywhere that does not have quality internet service.

Internet service is also a major issue for businesses located in rural areas, particularly agricultural producers and large industrial operators, who do not have the option of picking up and moving into the city. These businesses are located in rural areas for a reason and they deserve to have access to tools and resources to meet their business needs, through COVID and beyond.

Sturgeon County is taking a leadership role in improving internet access in our community, but we are not the only ones dealing with this issue. The steps we take can benefit other municipalities and First Nations as well. The municipal, provincial, and federal governments should be properly engaged in developing, implementing, and – most importantly – funding the strategies for addressing affordable rural broadband access across Alberta.

It’s time to speak out.

All levels of government need to get serious about rural broadband, and the only way to do this is to add your voice to the conversation. Consider one of the following actions:

Time is of the essence. The digital divide continues to grow at the rate of technology and rural communities cannot afford to be left behind. Investment in rural broadband is an investment in Alberta’s economic recovery and all parties need to be at the table.

For more information on Sturgeon County’s broadband strategy, visit sturgeoncounty.ca/broadband.

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