Closing the gap: a look back at the Alberta Rural Connectivity Forum

On March 23-24, Cybera hosted the Alberta Rural Connectivity Forum, a two-day virtual event that brought together community leaders and policymakers to discuss the state of connectivity in Alberta. Divided into two days— Community Broadband Updates on day 1 and Regulatory & Technical Solutions on day 2 — the event outlined the infrastructure and funding gaps that currently exist in rural, remote and First Nations communities in the province. Presenters also offered ideas on what government and service providers should be doing to address them. 

On the first day, attendees heard from three rural municipalities who, after exhausting other connectivity options, started their own municipal broadband projects. This included the Town of Viking beaming wifi into its community via an elevator tower, and Vermillion and Sturgeon County investing in community-owned fibre.

Attendees also heard from provincial and federal policymakers, including Service Alberta Minister Nate Glubish, CRTC Commissioner Nirmala Naidoo, and Parliamentary Secretary for Rural Economic Development Gudie Hutchings. All three government representatives agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of affordable access to high-speed internet in Canada, and that multiple levels of government need to work together to close the funding gap. 

CRTC Commissioner Nirmala Naidoo outlines federal funding programs for rural broadband

Proposed solutions to the ongoing digital divide covered municipal, regulatory and technical initiatives, including federal funding and community broadband builds. The potential of Low-Earth Orbit satellites was also discussed in a panel that included Michele Beck, the VP of North American Sales at Canadian satellite firm Telesat. 

Getting Funds to Towns

One of the most significant challenges highlighted by the community speakers was a lack of granularity on federal funding eligibility for broadband builds. Caroline McAuley, Mayor of the Town of Vermillion, outlined how her town was deemed “ineligible” for the federal Universal Broadband Fund because, according to CRTC maps, they were already considered ‘served’. In reality, Vermillion is served by a single service provider that offers minimal higher service levels throughout the municipality. 

Rob Schneider, Manager of Information Services at Sturgeon County, highlighted a similar experience. His team used CIRA speed test data to look at broadband service speeds at a more granular level than what is used by the federal government. The County determined that much of Sturgeon actually achieves download speeds below 6 Mbps, well below the CRTC’s basic service objective of 50/10 Mbps. 

Sturgeon County used CIRA speed test data to create a heat map of actual broadband speeds in the region. The majority of the county has access to downloads well below the 50/10mbps service objective.

Both the Town of Vermillion and Sturgeon County have opted to invest in their own municipal broadband builds, similar to initiatives carried out by Olds, Alberta,  (O-NET), and the wireless solution implemented by the Town of Viking. 

Presenters and attendees all highlighted the important need for a Provincial Broadband Strategy in Alberta to identify connectivity gaps, and to synchronize funding and deployment efforts from government and service providers. In his pre-Forum address, Service Alberta Minister Nate Glubish said his ministry is currently working on a Provincial Broadband Strategy. 

You can view the full forum presentation videos, and access slide presentations via the Alberta Rural Connectivity Forum 2021 page.

The Alberta Rural Connectivity Forum will be an annual event covering rural, remote and First Nations broadband in Alberta. If you are interested in presenting at next year’s forum, or have suggestions for topics, we encourage you to reach out to us at info@abconnectivity.ca. The Alberta Rural Connectivity Forum is hosted by Cybera on behalf of the Alberta Rural Connectivity Coalition, a cooperative of organizations and individuals working towards high-speed broadband access at affordable rates in Alberta. If you are a not-for-profit organization or an individual who is interested in advocating for connectivity in Alberta, please consider joining the coalition.

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