By Nikki Jamieson
One topic that has plagued rural Alberta for a long time is high-speed Internet, or rather the lack of.
As part of a visit from Bow River MP Martin Shields to Vauxhall town council during their regular meeting on Aug. 15, Mayor Margaret Plumtree asked about what was being done about high speed Internet in rural Alberta.
“Those communities who have managed to get it in, they’re not as vocal anymore. Those of us who don’t have it, we’re still fighting,” said Plumtrree.
Because Alberta has the Supernet, there is the common misconception that everyone in the province has access to high speed Internet, while in reality, residents living in more rural areas can often struggle with reliable speeds.
The Alberta Supernet is a high-speed network of approximately 13,000 km of fibre and 2,000 km of wireless Internet.
It connects 4,700 government facilities, such as hospitals, schools, libraries, government offices and provincial courthouses, and is currently managed by Axia. While other Internet providers can use the network to provide services to rural communities, they tend to stay in towns when providing services, as they feel that it is too expensive to spread their networks through so much area to service relatively few people.
Currently, within the Municipal District of Taber, residents receive Internet access through point of presence towers provided by smaller Internet service providers, which were, at the time they were installed, the best Internet technology available.
The towers serve between 200-1,000 rural households, and can cover up to 1,000 square km, with the majority of residents being served by wireless Internet. With an average upload speed of 750 kb/second and a download speed of 1.5 mb/second, service speed is limited.
By comparison, the Internet provider Telus’ fastest package, Internet 150, offers an upload and download speed of 150 mb/second, or 150,000 kb/second.
While providers like Telus are going to communities such as Taber and Barnwell, those who don’t live within town or hamlet boundaries are falling behind in terms of Internet access, which can greatly affect their business and family lives.
“It used to be we’re all pushing for it, one voice. But now communities are falling off because they’ve got Telus, they’ve got Axia, and our voice isn’t so strong,” said Plumtree.
“But, if we get it, we help our M.D. residents and business and that. And we stay viable, you know. Whether it’s our downtown businesses, our industrial, or even home based businesses, right? It keeps the families in town.”
Although last fall, Axia had approached the town to install a fibre optic system for free if at east 30 per cent of residents indicated their interest by the end of the year, unfortunately, the town did not meet that mark. Other providers are leery about installing in town, which is home to about 1,300 people, but the town cannot afford to install a network by themselves.
“Telus won’t touch us because we’re too small,” said Plumtree. “So, unless we’re willing to pay the money, which again, we’re too small, we can’t afford it, right? You know, building an outdoor community pool was taxing for us, so trying to put fibre optics in?”
Since the federal government is pledging $500 million to a new rural broadband strategy, council is charging Shields with ensuring that Alberta isn’t forgotten about.
“Southgrow, AUMA, we’re all fighting for it,” said Plumtree. “Just keep that voice strong on your end as well.”
“It’s good that you have those voices there,” said Shields, adding that M.D. Reeve Brian Brewin checks in with him on that topic constantly, recommending that they write a letter to MP Naveep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, on getting fibre optic funding into rural Alberta.