In this article, Lucas Warren of uc/communications examines the current state of Alberta’s SuperNet project. He finds that while major progress connecting municipalities has been made, there are still areas of the province unserved by high-speed connectivity — creating a rural digital divide.
The article was originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of the AAMDC’s Rural Routes magazine.
When it comes to high-speed connectivity in Alberta, the last mile is proving to be the longest
The SuperNet was supposed to change everything.
“Almost every Albertan – wherever they live – will be affected positively by this initiative, in a multitude of ways as it revolves around equal access for equal cost to the highest quality high-speed broadband access to the Internet,” said former Minister of Innovation and Science Lorne Taylor in a November 2000 press release.
“This initiative,” Taylor continued, “brings competition and service to smaller communities, where it does not and may never exist without this kind of a provincial initiative. This also helps ensure next generation services will be available at a competitive cost in a timely manner to almost every community in the province.”
To be fair, much of what was promised has been delivered.
The SuperNet has been a game changer in Alberta – becoming one of the most sophisticated communications networks in North America. The network currently connects 402 rural and 27 urban communities, boasting 12,000 kilometres of fibre optic and wireless technology.
But try to get a high-speed connection outside of a SuperNet community – like on the farm or in the field – and, well, your results can vary.
This “infrastructure at the neighborhood level” is what the Province refers to as last-mile technology. And in a province the size of Alberta with a geography as varied, completing this last mile is what’s proved to be the biggest challenge to provide “every Albertan” with equal access to high-speed broadband access.
“The SuperNet fiber point is not always in the best location for a radio-tower or even in the most cost-effective location,” says Graham Fletcher, President of the Internet Centre who has been trying desperately to bring broadband access to rural Alberta for years. “[It’s a significant] barrier to Albertans getting access to the SuperNet that they paid for.”
For these residents, there is a growing rural gap/ digital divide.
“The rural gap or digital divide is about access,” says Ron Popek, Executive Director of the Rural Development Division within Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (ARD). “The rural digital gap has three aspects: first, limited access to broadband service or the last mile problem, second, limited access due to cost/ affordability where broadband is available and the final aspect is limited access to sophisticated applications that require very high speed broadband.”
“Where economic business cases exist, the private sector provides broadband (high-speed internet) services to residents and businesses,” explains Popek. “However, outlying or remote areas with low populations remain un-served or under-served. Many rural areas do not present viable economic opportunities to Internet Service Providers.” (see “Serving the Unserved“)
The need is clear
More than ever, despite these barriers, the benefits of the Internet and connectivity are hard to ignore. Connectivity plays a role in enhancing economic development, improving quality of life as well as delivering more and more electronic services required by both the public and private sectors.
“One of the overarching themes that developed during [Rural Matters] was that, to be sustainable, rural communities must be able to provide adequate infrastructure in all areas of life,” said Donald W. Johnson, President of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties (AAMDC) and Chair of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) Rural Forum. “One way to do this is to develop and expand the use of Internet-based technologies for application in rural and remote areas as much as possible. This has to include the availability of high-speed Internet access for everyone in rural areas.”
“Tools such as teleconferencing, tele-health, video conferencing and electronic records are one way to attract and retain health, education, social services and private sector professionals. In order to do this, satellite offices that house this infrastructure should be reasonably accessible throughout rural Canada,” says Johnson.
It’s a message that the Government of Alberta is starting to take more seriously.
“That’s why the [provincial] government invested $193 million in the construction of the Alberta SuperNet, “ adds Cameron Traynor of Service Alberta. “The Internet helps enhance economic development, improve quality of life and better deliver the ever-increasing electronic services required by both the public and private sectors. This is especially true in rural Alberta.”
“The Internet is an important tool in maintaining a strong relationship between the urban and rural areas of our province,” said George Groeneveld, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development in a statement. “Access to the web enables residents, producers and businesses to stay connected and up-to-date with what is happening throughout the province, across the country and in global marketplaces.”
The Minister’s words echo true, as increasingly agricultural producers are being asked by governments and the marketplace to use the Internet to conduct business, access information and e-services and participate in government programs. It has become clear that the agri-industry and rural communities needs access to high-speed broadband to conduct business, expand markets, and attract and retain their workforce.
This is one of the driving forces behind the $9 million Rural Connections: Community Broadband Infrastructure Pilot Program. Announced late in 2008, Rural Connections targets rural communities for projects that enable access to reasonable high-speed broadband service.
“While high-speed broadband service is readily available to many Albertans, some rural and remote communities have limited or no access to this valuable resource,’’ said Groeneveld. “This [funding] will support locally-driven solutions for bringing high-speed broadband services to rural Alberta communities so they can be part of an increasingly connected global economy.’’
SuperNet: Salvation or False Hope?
The driving idea behind the SuperNet was (and still is) to connect public institutions across the province – schools, hospitals, colleges, universities, libraries and municipal offices – to a broadband network for high-speed Internet access, video conferencing and other services.
“Now that it is built and serving public institutions across the province, we are looking at ways to also use the SuperNet to give more Albertans access to broadband Internet services,” assures Traynor.
Service Alberta, as the lead ministry for the SuperNet, understands the challenges involved and is trying to navigate them as quickly as possible.
“We are working closely with Bell Canada, Axia SuperNet Ltd., municipalities, gas co-ops, community leaders and other partners to develop a detailed plan that connects more Albertans to broadband Internet through the SuperNet, particularly in communities where ISPs are not available,” says Traynor. “This plan needs to account for the costs associated with accessing the Internet through the SuperNet, as well as private sector involvement.”
“We’re working [too] with municipalities, community organizations, the private sector, and others to develop strategies that will provide access to broadband Internet services to more Albertans. Many pilot projects are already funded and underway in municipalities and counties across the province.”
The Government of Alberta is also trying to cooperate with the federal government to find ways to distribute federal economic stimulus dollars earmarked for rural Internet service development, to help expand broadband Internet access for more Albertans.
These federal efforts might be starting to pay off. In the 2009 federal budget, government provided $225 million over three years to Industry Canada to develop and implement a strategy on extending broadband coverage to all currently unserved communities beginning in 2009–10.
Driving the last mile
“One Voice clearly lays out the action plan for connectivity in rural Canada,” says Johnson. “We need to develop and expand the use of Internet-based technologies for application in rural and remote areas. To do that, the federal and provincial governments must provide targeted support to municipalities and community-owned cooperatives to ensure that businesses and homes have access to high-speed Internet.”
“You never know who the next Einstein is going to be,” says Graham Fletcher. “But as soon as you can connect people you enable innovation.”
Tapping the possibilities and opportunities that exist within rural Canada – finding the next Einstien or even just creating an even playing field – are major priorities for Johnson and the AAMDC.
“High-speed Internet and new developments in telecommunications hold enormous potential for rural communities and rural businesses,” says Johnson. “It’s vital that rural citizens and business owners have reasonable access to high-speed Internet and other leading edge technologies to help attract and retain citizens.”
“We will continue to send this important message to our provincial and federal leaders, until its evident that every rural Canadian has reasonable access to the Internet,” concludes Johnson.