After examining internet challenges and identifying the importance of connectivity, the Town of Vermilion is about to begin a six month test phase for broadband.
Mayor Caroline McAuley and councillor Robert Pulyk, discussed the digital divide and what led them in an attempt to address it.
“For the past few years, businesses have had issues with slow internet speeds causing things as basic as their security systems to not functioning properly” said McAuley.
“There are places in our municipality that some providers are not willing to go. If you have poor service sometimes you have no choice.”
The Town of Vermilion was part of the Vermilion River Regional Alliance’s (VRRA) Community and Regional Economic Support Grant application in 2017 which led them to be able to research the feasibility of bringing broadband to the area.
They then received a licence from the CRTC to become their own internet service provider, meaning they will be able to compete with current providers such as Telus.
Their test run during the 2019 Vermilion Fair led them to examine what components worked and what needed improvement.
The Town of Vermilion used approximately $300,000 of Municipal Sustainability Initiative grant money towards a new broadband pilot project.
They have been planning and engineering and since November, while waiting for additional equipment to arrive. As a result of COVID-19, some of the equipment was deemed non-essential and were in lock down until approximately 10 days ago.
They now have access via fibre and radios to transmit to five wifi units, spreading the signals along Highway 41 and 47 Avenue.
As the project is fine-tuned and test begins internally, approximately 10 businesses are registered to be part of the test phase and will be paying a small amount when they receive access to the system later this week.
Those businesses will be testing out the new technology and trying it out as a pilot project for the next six months while the town continues to seek funding from provincial and federal governments.
The Vermilion Veterinary Clinic is participating in the pilot project. Registered Veterinary Technician, Sam Willis, said that they have a lot of internet trouble with it being very slow.
“Tons of stuff for us is online and it’s not just our e-mail communication with people,” said Willis.
“Our servers, our billing and debit machine, ordering of supplies, as well as getting lab results are all done online.”
During the pilot project, participants will keep their original service providers so they do not lose business if they face any potential interruptions. The Town hopes to discover any glitches within the first two-three months.
If it works properly, the businesses who participated will have reliable service 24/7 and will in turn be able to provide immediate responses to service requests.
The test phase may be expanded in the future to include residents in those areas as well.
“We are excited to see how it works and hope it’s an improvement from what we have now,” said Willis.
In the future, the Town hopes to provide an open access network that would eventually grow to include more businesses and residents. It would be accessible through all providers meaning that it could service everyone.
In the long run, it would even be shared with other VRRA partners including Lakeland College, the County of Vermilion River, Mannville, Dewberry, Marwayne, Kitscoty, Paradise Valley, and Lloydminster. It would be treated like a utility and could potentially bring funds back into the community.
“This is another step in modernizing rural Alberta,” said McAuley.
“We have some great innovators but they are limited if they are not connected to the world. If we want to sustain rural life, broadband and connectivity is critical. We can offer a higher quality of life if we can offer connectivity.”
They said that Vermilion currently has copper lines which are limited to how much internet they can carry, coaxial cable a better option but with limitations, and fibre via the SuperNet (from the Alberta Government) to supply schools and hospitals for example, but is not accessible to the residents.
Pulyk said that fibre was also provided by telecommunications companies to banks, but when installing it they dug up the streets and sidewalks to get it to them, and for other businesses it is too costly.
He said that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC) has set a standard of 50/10Mbps. This means that people in all communities (including rural ones) should have internet connection with access to speeds of 50 Megabits per second for downloads and 10 Megabits per second for uploads.
They found that even though Vermilion has the 50/10 Mbps standard with current providers, that at times during speed tests they were only getting were 3/1 Mbps.
Why Change Is Necessary
“The lack of broadband and connectivity levels have been a deterring factor for inquiring new businesses despite all of the advantages we have,” said McAuley.
“A lot of federal funding gets streamed to telecommunications companies and they are not interested in providing rural broadband,” said Pulyk.
“We are looking to level the playing field. Broadband has only become more and more critical with everyone being online during the pandemic.”
Work, school, and leisure were all contributing to the usage increase. He gave an example of rural communities in eastern Canada where employers asked their employees to work from home but because people didn’t have good access where they lived, they were at risk of losing their jobs or having to move to larger centres.
“Some people said the internet seemed slower at the Vermilion Veterinary Clinic because of the pandemic. We saw more pets than typical during that time because some clinics were operating at a reduced capacity. Some people noticed their pet’s symptoms being at home more regularly so we saw more medical appointments being made,” said Willis.
McAuley said that they have been lobbying at all levels of government for funding to encourage rural municipalities across the country to implement broadband programs as well as speaking with the Alberta Rural Municipalities Association, MLA Garth Rowswell, and the Alberta Minister of Service.
She also said MP Shannon Stubbs was helpful in connecting them with two Alberta senators.
“Our hope is that this may actually be an affordable solution for rural municipalities,” said Pulyk.