By Cole Parkinson
As the provincial government continues to pump funds into rural broadband, the Municipal District of Taber is also looking at ways to improve Internet speeds across the municipality.
One project being worked on at the moment is in partnership with Tango Networks and would see a fibre connection in the M.D.
“We’re talking about a fibre connection between Chin and Grassy Lake. We’re looking at developing a business case, leveraging recent wins, I’d say, in adjacent municipalities,” explained Matt Sproule of Tango Networks. “The process we followed there was successful because the municipality wasn’t a ‘look to build something and then see if it works,’ it was a collaborative exercise, which invested heavily into upfront assessment with both the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the businesses.”
In speaking to several different parties, the group has found reception to applying for broadband grants is favourable.
“We found the feedback we received was very good. It was also very breaking and very applicable in regards to the overall grant and how those processes apply. It also revealed significant pent-up demand in the businesses. The catchphrase ‘you can’t believe everything you hear in the media,’ it definitely became true. When you talk to a business that is willing to invest hard-earned dollars, especially in this kind of a season, into fibre, you realize right away there are some deep business needs that they need to support,” continued Sproule. “The proposal that is here leverages the process that was followed. The first step in the proposal is to assess and develop a business case, which could also be turned very quickly into a grant application, should it happen just like it did last November. We are going to look at fibre from the Town of Taber’s high-speed data DEMARCs and there’s quite a few in the town of Taber. (We’re) looking to bring them directly west into the area around Johnson’s Addition.”
Sproule also touched on the other key steps for the next part of the process.
“The second part of business would be to head down to Chin and then east to Grassy Lake. Connecting those endpoints and the key communities and business opportunities between those endpoints together. This is in keeping with our strategy on Phases 4, 5, 6, and 7. We’re really just going to execute what that shows. We’re going to have to be more detailed with our business stakeholder involvement to find out exactly where we need to bring a fibre place point,” he said.
The timeline also needs to start soon, according to Sproule.
“To get this thing through from start to finish, we would need to start in August to finish a business case in November, which we look to have council’s approval on. This is also important because that may be when the government of Alberta recently announced the funding at $150 million, which may be available to us to apply for. So, we have something we could actually turn very quickly into a grant application should it be similar to last year’s process the federal government followed,” he added. “The steps along the way are the definition of the project in August with administration, contacting the businesses — not quite door to door, but definitely looking for the M.D. to nominate the stakeholders they have already seen requests from and ones they feel are likely to want to participate.”
The group has also been busy reaching out to a variety of ISPs.
“At the same time, we’ve been engaging all of the ISPs. In previous business case development after engaging ISPs, we had four wanting to participate. Now, we anticipate that or more because the town of Taber is very well connected when it comes to high-speed data DMARCs from the major Internet Service Providers,” continued Sproule. “This project is intended to start in August and end in December with very tangible grant focused applications.”
With fibre needing to be put in the ground, council inquired if it could be placed in Alberta Transportation right of way or just on M.D. land.
“It should very much go in Alberta Transportation right of way and we will be careful to look at the future twinning, which we believe will be more south. So, when we place the fibre, we would look to the right of way north of Highway 3,” answered Sproule.
Another question was around the grant funding.
Council asked if they could still apply for grants if council approved their own funding for the project.
“If funding has already been allocated by council, last year’s grant conditions made that project ineligible,” replied Sproule. “The approach we are looking at doing to mitigate that is have a council approval later in November just so we can see if we have that competing business case that says we want to proceed with a six-kilometre fibre layout to Johnson’s Addition. Then we would get council’s approval, but we would still have the project behind it which lays the other 53 kilometres to Chin and Grassy. We could use that as leverage for a larger grant application.”
While Chin to Grassy Lake have been looked at, a question from council was why Highway 36 north wasn’t looked at.
“I have no bias either way. There are data points up into Vauxhall and over to Enchant and Hays. It was just a matter of what seemed really available today,” responded Sproule. “I did bias Johnson’s Addition because, in my opinion, we have a Public Works office which is unserved, except by wireless point to point. So there’s immediate value to the M.D. There’s also the business park, which just from preliminary talks with some of the developers and businesses in the area, there are some very poor data connections, and Johnson’s has none. I was looking at that as a very key part of what would form a key pillar to a very good business case. Highway 3 then was the rest of the way and was just a matter of extending off of that initial take.”
“To go north on 36, we would actually be extending data points out of the town of Taber still. So, it would show the same kind of value that we would show extending east or west down Highway 3.”
M.D. administration further explained economic development potential also played a factor as to where the project could be located.
“I think one of the considerations when it comes to prioritizing certain areas here is the economic development potential. I’m not saying Highway 36 doesn’t have significant economic development potential, but with the Highway 3 corridor there, it definitely has some need potential here from an economic development perspective,” stated CAO Arlos Crofts. “A lot is really trying to get to a point of being design ready and in the bigger picture, being infrastructure ready.”
“What we did is we just took the feedback we got through the process from some of the ISPs that had a certain amount of interest in that Highway 3 corridor as well,” added Bryce Surina, director of GIS and IT. “(We) just felt that this would give us an opportunity to get a business case and something that we could get behind us and then show the successes of going forward with working with industry. And not only just industry, but the businesses as well, so putting that whole package together. It was an area we could really focus on to get some solutions out there.”
Council asked what kind of financial commitment would be needed and where the money would come from.
Administration’s report explained that an operating approval would be required for the amendment of $53,965.99 to the 2021 budget.
“It would be coming out of our reserve,” explained Crofts. “I do believe a portion of these costs, if successful in obtaining grant funding can also be recovered.”
“That is correct. The second phase and the third phase could possibly be included in the grant application. That is the only unknown and what we are trying to respond to,” added Surina.
A motion to support the continuation of our Broadband Strategy through the development of a business case specific to the Highway 3 Agri-Food Corridor in preparation for grant funding opportunities, and approve an amendment to the 2021 operating budget of $53,965.99 to facilitate the business case development, including components of a grant funding application specific to the three stages outlined in the Tango Networks application proposal, was carried unanimously by council.
Coun. Leavitt Howg was absent.