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Red Deer County councillors concerned about delay in federal funding for broadband project

Several councillors vote against investing further without promised federal cash

A project to bring high-speed Internet to rural residents risks failure if municipal support wavers, warned Red Deer County Mayor Jim Wood on Tuesday.

“I truly believe that should we delay and not fund this we’re putting the entire project at risk,” said Wood, as council debated whether to spend another $4 million this year on the project to create a fibre-optic network.

The county has spent about $17 million so far building a network to extend fibre-optic links to rural residents. Another $4 million is earmarked in this year’s budget for the project, contingent on a long-awaited federal grant worth around $10 million.

After a year of negotiations with the federal government, an agreement has been reached on the area to be covered with the next round of network expansion along with a commitment that federal dollars are coming.

However, several councillors were leery of going ahead with another multi-million-dollar investment without the federal cash in hand.

A vote to approve the $4 million in spending was split 4-3 with Councillors Dana Depalme, Lonny Kennett and Christine Moore voting against.

Wood said the county’s commitment is crucial to the success of the project, which has overwhelming support from county residents.

“We got into this project because private industry would not invest in Red Deer County’s rural areas,” he said. “As a council, years ago we realized that we were the only ones to make it happen.”

Without finishing the project, the investment made so far will have little value, he said.

Coun. Philip Massier compared the broadband initiative to a bridge three-quarters complete that must be finished to be useful.

He was confident that the federal government’s approval of the scope of the project signalled the necessary funding would be coming.

“That’s all I need (to make a decision),” he said.

Coun. Connie Huelsman said she too was reassured by the federal government’s approval of the coverage plan and supported freeing up the $4 million.

“We need Internet and we are really in it fairly far,” she said of the broadband initiative.

Depalme expressed her reluctance to put in more county money without a firmer financial commitment from the federal government that its funding was coming. When the county put the money in the budget, it was meant to be contingent on federal funding being received, she added.

Council was told by staff that if it delayed funding the coming construction season could be lost, which would put the project behind.

That would also have implications for an entity called a municipally controlled corporation the county hopes to set up in partnership with Paintearth County to oversee the broadband project in future. A public hearing is set for June 13 at Red Deer County Centre to get feedback from residents on the initiative.

Assistant county manager Dave Dittrick said stalling the project would put the corporation — if approved — in a tough financial position from its inception.

Moore said she supports the broadband initiative but is concerned about feeling pressure to make a decision before the promised federal funding help has shown up.

Also reluctant to spend money without federal cash in hand was Kennett, who said the county was not a business and the money it spent belonged to ratepayers.

“We need the federal commitment. If you’re worried about the construction season, talk to them.”

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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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