Rural Albertan families have resorting to public libraries or Tim Hortons to get a decent Internet connection for online schooling.
The Alberta government announced on Wednesday $390 million will be spent over the next four years to ensure 99 per cent of Albertans have a link that meets the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications (CRTC) standard for acceptable broadband service, which is 50 Mdps download and at least 10 Mdps upload speeds with unlimited data.
Rural Municipalities of Alberta president Paul McLauchlin said broadband connectivity is the issue he hears most about from the 69 rural communities represented by his organization.
And when newcomers are considering moving to Ponoka County, access to broadband is one of the first questions asked, said McLauchlin, who is the county’s reeve.
“This is the perfect investment. This enables dreams to come true,” he said at a news conference in Innisfail where the funding was announced by Premier Jason Kenney and Service Alberta Minister Nate Glubish.
“This is the field of dreams approach to investment.”
McLauchlin said only about one in 10 rural households have access to good-quality Internet connections, and some northern communities have as little as four Mdps.
“This will enable those folks to start to actually bridge that gap. If you ever watch a Netflix movie watching a spinning wheel and the buffering, it is just one of the most annoying things on the planet.”
Ensuring good connectivity province-wide is about much more than convenience.
“The fast is this democratizes the access to information. In order to have innovation we all need to have access to the same information.”
Red Deer County corporate services director Heather Surkan said the announcement is welcomed by the municipality, which has its own $15-million broadband initiative. It has applied for $9 million under the new government program.
“We are excited to be considered in this funding initiative as a shovel-ready project to accelerate broadband and wireless connectivity to our rural businesses and residents,” said Surkan.
Glubish said Alberta hopes to leverage its investment by lobbying the federal government for matching funds and the private sector will also be approached.
Some communities will be in line for fibre optic links, others will be served by fixed wireless providers and in the more remote areas of the province low-orbit satellite technology may be used to boost Internet speeds.
Glubish said the investment, which adds $240 million to a $150 million investment announced last year, will help Albertans “bridge the digital divide” and ensure all can participate in the province’s ongoing economic recovery.
The premier said that improving broadband connectivity will allow farmers and ranchers better access to agricultural technologies and could provide a five-per-cent boost to the agricultural sector’s GDP.
As well, 40,000 Albertans without a primary health-care provider will get better access to telehealth, which also saves the health system money. About 120,000 students are also expected to get better access to remote education.