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Internet providers urge Red Deer County to open up access to new network

Non-profit corporation expected to oversee internet expansion in county
Red Deer County and partners are going forward with a proposal to create a municipally controlled corporation to extend the reach of broadband internet services. (File photo by Black Press News Services)

Internet service providers told Red Deer County they were concerned the creation of a not-for-profit corporation to improve rural internet will freeze out competitors.

Edgar HighSpeed president Chris Wescott has been operating since 2014 in the county and has a fixed wireless network providing service to an area covering 325 square kilometres.

Wescott said his company has been unsuccessfully trying to access the county’s network since June 2022.

If the county intends to go forward with a proposal to create a municipally controlled corporation to extend the reach of broadband internet services there should be a clear and affordable process for existing providers to join the network, Wescott told Red Deer County council at a public hearing on Tuesday.

He also does not want to see the county pursuing customers in areas such as Clearview Industrial Park and Gasoline Alley that are already served by numerous providers.

The county is joining forces with Village of Delburne and Paintearth County to create a municipally controlled corporation called Rural Connect Ltd. to deliver broadband Internet services to thousands of rural residents under-served by existing private sector service providers.

Also involved is EQUS REA Ltd., an Alberta-based member-owned electricity provider, which will provide $2 million in start-up capital. Another partner is VALO Networks, which specializes in operating next-generation fibre-optic and wireless networks will operate Connect’s system, saving the corporation from having to provide those services.

Phil Swanson, of Missing Link Internet, said he has been trying to join the county network since last November but has been getting nowhere. Missing Link provides fibre and wireless west of Red Deer with fiber around Sylvan Lake, Kayton Estates, Kuusamo, Benalto, and Spruceview and Gleniffer Lake.

Swanson is concerned once Connect and EQUS take over there will be no access for companies such as his.

Several councillors also sought assurances that access would be available to other providers once the corporation takes over.

“I have real concerns about the lack of openness to other providers,” said Coun. Christine Moore

County manager Curtis Herzberg said Rural Connect is designed to be a wholesaler that would sell internet access to other providers and the intent is not to create a monopoly.

Coun. Lonny Kennett asked whether the county would have control over how much spending was done to expand the network or the municipality would be “beholden” to whatever the corporation decided.

Herzberg said any projects planned for Red Deer County would be brought to council for review before they went ahead.

Mayor Jim Wood said to get the county’s broadband initiative off the ground VALO Networks was given control over revenues and expenses in an agreement that ends next year.

The intention was always to open the network to service providers as it became established and he is confident that is exactly what will happen when the corporation takes over.

“It will become an open network so all providers can connect.”

Connect will not provide retail service directly to customers. It will provide the network and infrastructure that other retailers can use to sign up new customers.

Red Deer County launched its major initiative in 2020 to bring affordable broadband service to county residents and Delburne soon signed on.

Since then, the county has invested more than $17 million in the initiative and approved another $4 million this week. A $10-million federal grant is also expected to further expand the network.

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Paul Cowley

About the Author: Paul Cowley

Paul grew up in Brampton, Ont. and began his journalism career in 1990 at the Alaska Highway News in Fort. St. John, B.C.
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