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Broadband faces many challenges in rural Alberta

Posted on July 5, 2016 by 40 Mile Commentator

By Tim Kalinowski
Broadband was very much in the mind of, and a major point of discussion among, Palliser Economic Partnership members at last Wednesday’s AGM in Medicine Hat.
Not only did Alberta Minister of Economic Development and Trade Deron Bilous take it on during his remarks to the assembly, (and fielded pointed questions from PEP members on it afterward), it all was also the subject of a stand alone presentation by the Calgary Regional Partnership’s Bob Miller to end the day.
Miller spoke eloquently about the challenges facing rural areas and smaller municipalities in bringing broadband service to their communities, especially if major suppliers such as Telus, Axia or Bell, are not interested in servicing an area.
He used the Olds, Alberta example to illustrate this point.

The community of Olds tried to get broadband to their town, and even went so far as to put in fibre optic cables and the necessary electronics, paid for by local taxpayers and enterprises, to make it easier for the companies to come in and provide the service. Local officials thought it was a no-brainer; however, the companies refused to offer broadband service because they did not own the infrastructure the town had installed.
The Town then decided to go one step further and become their own Internet Service Provider to bring in and administer local broadband themselves. Now the community acts as an ISP not only for their own community, but for others in the province who can link into the fibre optic network and get to them.

Miller used Olds as a powerful example of a municipality going it on their own in today’s broadband market, but also as a cautionary tale. Successive Alberta governments have been slow to adopt a comprehensive, province-wide broadband policy to date.
“There is a window in time where municipalities and regions have effective choices, (when it comes to broadband), and the window is kind of closing, and it is closing for a number of reasons, where the world’s technology is changing and it has implications for everything: Education, health care and all of that. So what we are talking about is how we move into the world of basically local community fibre networks,” said Miller.

Miller went on to say decentralization, as demonstrated by the Olds example, is inevitable; especially if the provincial government does not begin actively channeling the growth and improvement of existing fibre optic and broadband networks. Many wealthier communities and municipalities, like Olds, are already preparing to go their own way.
“There is a lot of discussion now around community owned fibre networks. If a community gets its act together, owns and controls the fibre, and can support competition within it, you will actually get amazingly faster speeds for lower prices.”

However, as good as this kind of decentralization might be for some, warned Miller, for other, more deeper rural and less wealthy municipalities; they might find themselves greatly disadvantaged going forward.
“It’s the old adage,” Miller said. “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together. And that choice, (for municipalities) is out there right now.”
Miller pointed to several recent examples where communities or major organizations have opted to sign onto a targeted internet network by making a deal with one of the private internet suppliers— in effect, taking a special deal not offered to everyone in their home region or community. Miller called this type of deal “cherry-picking.”
“You want to be really careful,” he cautioned. “Cherry-picking is like getting a fibre solution from one little part of a bigger system. But when you get it for the one part, one town, it actually weakens the integrity of the whole system and makes some things not viable. For example, Shaw is now providing internet fibre to eight hospitals in Alberta that were on SuperNet. They thought the SuperNet was too expensive and the performance was really lousy. So Shaw was there and gave them a bulk deal.
“That’s a really good thing for the hospitals, but for a town and surrounding area to lose one of your major employers, who could invest some money in a bigger network system that all could use, you have just taken them out of the picture. Once you take a major piece off the table, because now they are good, what you are left with is a bunch of little guys who don’t have nearly the purchasing power, or capacity, of the bigger ones.”

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