Profile: Sturgeon County Broadband Network

Responding to a critical need highlighted by local businesses and residents, Sturgeon County has partnered with Canadian Fiber Optics to bring high-speed internet to subdivisions, hamlets, and businesses parks in the region, starting with its southwest quadrant.

Increasing demand for high speed internet in Sturgeon county: pre-pandemic to present

Even prior to the onset of the pandemic, Sturgeon County — located directly north of Edmonton — was hearing complaints from local businesses about internet options in the area.

“Businesses were telling us that poor connectivity was creating an unlevel playing field for them, and they couldn’t compete against their urban counterparts,” says Rob Schneider, Manager of Information Services for Sturgeon County. “For example, livestock auctions struggled to get the internet service needed to move their business online. Considering the majority of livestock sales today are done online, that inability to make the switch was having a significant impact on their bottom line.”

Schneider says issues related to poor connectivity were further exacerbated by the pandemic, which only increased local demand for high speed internet access. “We were already hearing concerns from residents and businesses, but when the virus hit, the concern dial turned up to eleven. Suddenly, people were trying and failing to work from home, which was very frustrating for them. Some families had to ‘take turns’ using the internet, because their home network couldn’t support multiple active users.”

In 2020, Sturgeon County asked local residents to run a Canadian Internet Registry Association (CIRA) internet performance test at home, and share the results. This outreach revealed the average download speed in the county to be 10 Megabits per second (Mbps), significantly below the 50 Mbps minimum recommended by the federal government for basic internet needs in Canada.

Surveys sent to residents and businesses also indicated a strong dissatisfaction with the speed and reliability of local internet service, and support for the county to take steps to improve the matter.

Meeting public demand through private sector partnership

Schneider says telecommunications companies were unwilling to upgrade internet services in Sturgeon County due its small population. At the same time, the county lacked the expertise and funds necessary to construct its own broadband network.

“Our best option was to incentivize private sector partners to invest in our county.”

After an extensive review process, the county partnered with Canadian Fiber Optics for the first phase of its broadband initiative. This phase involved constructing a fibre route through densely populated areas in the southwest corner of the county. Subsequent phases will expand this initial route to other parts of the county.

Residents and businesses located along this route are considered to be in the “core service area,” and will be able to purchase reliable, high-speed internet from a service provider of their choosing. According to Schneider, any telecommunications company will be able to access the network to sell internet services to customers.

The county will pay for and own all the fibre optic cable in the core service area, at a cost of $7.5 million. Canadian Fiber Optics will pay for and own the electronics that “light up” this cable. “If you plug it in, it’s owned by Canadian Fiber Optics. If it’s buried in the ground, it’s owned by the county,” says Schneider.

Remote residents located outside of the core service area will be able to access the main route. “They can pay to extend it to their house, but it’s expensive, because fibre is expensive,” says Schneider. “For some rural residents or businesses, this might just be worth the investment. We also have a DIY option. If you’re on private property, we’ll sell you the conduit, and you can bury the line yourself.”

Gaps in government funding

As it is receiving no financial support from the provincial or federal government, Sturgeon County will need to accrue debt to pay for its portion of the build. “We don’t qualify for funding from the Universal Broadband Fund because, according to its framework, our constituents already have access to quality internet,” says Schneider.

Since the start of the Universal Broadband Fund, the federal government’s framework for determining need is based on the availability of a minimum 50 Mbps download / 10 Mbps service in a set geographic area. If just a small fraction of that area has access to a high-speed connection, it can result in the surrounding areas being deemed ineligible for funding. 

Through this system, the federal government has deemed many communities in Alberta “connected”, and therefore ineligible for funding, despite these municipalities reporting generally poor connectivity.

“We also don’t qualify for provincial grants, because the province’s grant programs are leveraging the Universal Broadband Fund’s framework.”

Schneider says the county has borrowed money to pay for this project, and will receive a portion of the subscription fees locals will pay to access the internet. “Eventually, after a long time, decades perhaps, those subscription fees will pay off this initial investment. But the county is fronting millions of dollars, and this means taking on some risk. There are concerns. What if we don’t get enough subscribers? What if the technology changes?”

The Sturgeon County Broadband Network: a boon to all

The potential benefits of the new network far outweigh the risks. Expected to be completed by the end of 2022, it will provide current and prospective residents with services previously only available to people living in well-connected urban centres. The new network will allow residents to work and study from home, access streaming services and other forms of online entertainment, and install advanced home security systems. As Schneider notes, senior citizens in the core service area will be able to live at home longer by leveraging online healthcare services.

The network will also improve the county’s ability to retain and attract businesses. Because high-speed internet is relatively rare in rural regions of Alberta, the county’s fibre optic network could also make it an attractive destination for established businesses looking to relocate, or an excellent launchpad for small startups.

The benefits go beyond local residents and businesses. Canadians as a whole will benefit from improved rural networks, as the technological advancements they enable could increase the produce and livestock yields of farmers, potentially decreasing grocery store prices.

“Farming in general is becoming more and more information based,” says Schneider. “Farmers are using applications to help manage moisture, and monitor their livestock. Fibre optic internet makes for better farming, and better farming helps everyone.”

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