Notley promises $520 million plan to get high-speed internet across Alberta if elected

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Opposition New Democrat Leader Rachel Notley is promising universal affordable high-speed internet across Alberta within four years if elected in 2023.

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Addressing the Rural Municipalities of Alberta Convention Thursday, Notley said the digital divide between urban and rural communities is hurting the entire province, including its economic growth.

“Affordable high-speed internet has surpassed its designation as a ‘nice-to-have’ –  it is without question an essential service,” said Notley, who was met with applause when she promised the plan.

It has a $520 million price tag, but Notley said increased revenues would recoup the cost to taxpayers in six years, generating 18,700 jobs and increasing the province’s gross domestic product by $4 billion over five years.

The NDP aim to get every Albertan access to the internet at speeds of at least 50 megabytes per second for downloads and 10 megabytes per second for uploads at rates that are on par with those in cities.

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“We cannot allow the digital divide to grow into a digital canyon,” Notley said.

The proposal would see the creation of a new provincial Digital Innovation agency led by an advisory committee with rural and Indigenous leaders, internet service providers, utility companies and gas co-ops. The agency would spend its first year mapping existing coverage, identifying gaps and log actual internet speeds.

In its second year, the government would go to open tender and hold reverse auctions to find who can provide the highest speeds at the lowest cost.

“There will be no monopoly. It will be open and it will be competitive. And in those areas where no reasonable amount of public subsidy would result in a high-speed fibre or fixed wireless solution, we will provide a tax credit for satellite service,” Notley said, adding the plan came out of a year’s worth of consultations with municipal leaders and telecoms.

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In July, Premier Jason Kenney announced his government would spend up to $150 million on improving broadband internet in rural and Indigenous communities. The hope is that the cash will unlock federal funding and investments from the private sector.

At the time, the government did not provide details about how exactly the funding will be spent, or when.

In a Thursday news release, United Conservative caucus said when the Notley NDP was in government, they ignored rural Alberta and invested “nothing whatsoever” into rural broadband.

Camrose UCP MLA Jackie Lovely said she doesn’t believe that would change if they were given another term.

“We are delivering where the Notley NDP failed, and we aren’t looking back. We are bridging the digital divide between rural and urban Albertans,” Lovely said.

lijohnson@postmedia.com

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