Cybera hosted the first annual Alberta Rural Connectivity Forum, bringing together industry and communities to discuss strategies for providing broadband to their residents, businesses, and public organizations.
Vermilion Mayor, Caroline McAuley was one of the speakers and shared the process of establishing V-Net, making the Town of Vermilion their own Internet Service Provider (ISP).
“It was so good to see all of these different groups participate – community leaders as well as representatives from the government and education,” said Meagan Hampel, Cybera’s vice president of external relations.
“It was really powerful, with a lot of ideas put forward for how we can move forward collectively to support connectivity in Alberta.”
Over 200 people attended the virtual event with representation from both northern and southern communities. The conference was created as a rebirth if Digital Futures for stakeholders to share stories of their connectivity issues and unique solutions, detailing how they have been able to work with the resources they have.
Participants recognized the lack of internet access opportunities in certain areas, the lack of a unified response to this problem, and the central importance of broadband to the province’s future. Hampel said a lot of communities came out of the conference with ideas of how to move forward, and as a collective they plan to help the Alberta Government to develop a provincial broadband strategy.
“There is a lot of excitement about the potential for satellites with Elon Musk, and looking at opportunities for Albertans or identifying gaps they still need to fill. With the CRTC’s Universal Broadband Fund announced last fall, there are $750 million federal dollars for communities looking to improve their service.”
She said many of the participants had applied for this fund, and discussed what methods had been successful and what hadn’t. Community representatives told their stories, and explained how there are currently inaccurate maps that show the government that communities have adequate connectivity when in fact they do not.
First Nations and Metis Settlements are also looking to access broadband, with many communities being within a kilometre or two of a highway or an area that would have connectivity, but they are unable to tap into the existing network.
“We’ve seen some of the worst connectivity rates in Canada in First Nations communities. Some of their schools had to shut down in Alberta,” said Hampel.
“During the pandemic, the schools closed with no learning done because some of the children had no internet, so it was impossible for them to do at home learning.”
As for Vermilion, McAuley said the conversations surrounding broadband began in 2013. Since then, the community along with others in the province have struggled with getting people to recognize broadband as a utility, instead of the only option being from a telecommunications provider.
“It’s often the fear of the unknown. We are all comfortable with the town overseeing water, sewer and garbage but we had to keep saying, ‘If not us – who, and if not now – when.’”
Broadband, or the lack thereof, impacts everything in the community she said, from business point of sale purchases or social media advertising, to health care, education, security, training, and transmitting information. As result, she said it becomes a major player in business retention and attraction.
Being told it would take six years to potentially be put on a list to have it installed by a telecom, they opted to investigate what other options were out there.
“A rural municipality needs to consider broadband connectivity as part of their economic development strategy,” said McAuley.
“For example, we have four Ag dealers in our community and with diagnostics for combines – when a combine is down, it means business to the farmer. In addition, if they are unable to provide service, we don’t want to lose our current businesses to other communities who can provide better connectivity. We want to diversify the economy and become a Smart community.”
On their current V-Net test pilot, businesses are now receiving 150 Megabits per second upload speed and 150 down (in areas that were previously receiving less than the CRTC 50/10 Mbps standard). Once businesses started getting the service, the town received a lot of uptake in the test pilot project and participants are extremely happy with the service the town is providing.
The Town of Vermilion currently has an RFP until March 30, looking for partnership to deploy and operate an Open-Access-Broadband Utility Network.
“Aside from business investment and job creation, there are two rural Alberta communities 25 kilometres apart, and house values average $15,000 more in the community with broadband. This has a big economic impact – it is more than just convenience for Netflix, and the telecoms know this,” said McAuley.