Making connections: A look at Alberta’s plan for universal high-speed internet access

Improving access to high-speed internet in rural Alberta will not be easy. Nor will it be cheap. 

Earlier this month, the federal government agreed to match funding announced by the province aimed at improving access to broadband internet in rural communities.

The province’s goal is universal connectivity by early 2027.

Getting everyone access to reliable high-speed internet and eliminating the “digital divide” will cost about $1 billion, the Alberta government says, with Ottawa and the province so far committed to $780 million.

The federal government goal is to have 95 per cent of Canadians connected by 2026 and 100 per cent by 2030, with everyone able to access internet speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 10 Mbps upload.

Why do it?

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the digital divide, as many workplaces, schools and other services were only accessible online at various points of the pandemic.

But beyond the pandemic, places with poor internet connectivity are at a disadvantage. 

“Closing the digital divide is still non-negotiable,” said Erin Knight, digital rights campaigner with OpenMedia.

“Folks from some rural and remote communities remember, for example, going into the lobby of their local hockey rink to work from home during the pandemic,” Knight said.

“And well that might not be the case anymore, folks in rural and remote communities still deserve high quality, reliable and affordable internet as much as their urban counterparts.”

In 2016, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission declared the internet a basic service that should be available to everyone.

The Alberta government believes improving broadband for rural, remote and Indigenous communities can also tap economic potential.

The province estimates it could see $1.7 billion in annual GDP growth through improved connectivity for households and businesses.

The province also expects upgrading the infrastructure will create about 1,500 jobs.

How it works

In Alberta, the provincial government will be jointly funding projects that have already applied for the federal program.

“Our focus is on connecting as many households as quickly as possible, and the best way to achieve that is by jointly funding projects with applications already submitted to the Universal Broadband Fund (UBF),” said Lindsay Milligan, press secretary for the Minister of Service Alberta, in an email.

Applications for the UBF are already being reviewed, Milligan said. 

The UBF has specific guidelines and evaluation criteria, but projects could be proposed for any 250-metre segment identified on the National Broadband Internet Availability Map without 50/10 Mbps coverage. 

A wide range of entities can apply including large telecommunications companies, small rural internet service providers, towns, counties, First Nations and Métis settlements.

Government funding “will unlock a significant amount of private sector investment, and will be available to support Alberta-based broadband projects,” the Alberta government says in its website.

 The program will use a mix of different technologies to improve access, including fibre-to-the-home, fixed wireless access, and low-earth-orbit satellite technologies.

Once applications are approved, construction can start. It’s anticipated that the first round of approved applications will be announced in the near future, with construction starting later this year.

The province expects to have four rounds of project announcements before achieving full connectivity across Alberta. 

Who gets it

The Alberta government estimates 67 per cent of rural Alberta residents and 80 per cent of Indigenous communities don’t have access to reliable high-speed internet, representing about 201,000 households or 489,000 people. 

The government won’t reveal which communities will get upgraded internet.

Milligan told CBC that information will be released as approved projects are announced, but all Albertans should expect to have access to high-speed internet by the end of the 2026-27 fiscal year.

Not so fast 

While many rural Albertans await the announcement of the internet projects, governments of all levels have been attempting to improve internet access for rural areas for years.

And realistically, all levels of government will be involved in reaching the goal of universal connectivity. Some municipalities, like Sturgeon County north of Edmonton, have developed their own strategies separate from the federal and provincial ones.

The provincial government has made several announcements related to funding but so far, projects have not been announced.

If the government is committed to having everyone connected, they must ensure it’s affordable, Knight said.

“The lack of competition and choice in home-internet providers is a real problem, and it will prevent segments of the population from accessing connectivity.

Knight said the federal government needs to ensure small internet providers and communities are selected for universal broadband projects instead of simply funding the big telecom companies that are “keeping prices high for people.”

“With enough intention and enough concrete steps in the directions of affordability and physical connectivity, this is absolutely a problem that can be solved,” she said.

“It just requires the government to act on the solutions that are being posed to them.”

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