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Premier devotes $150 million to overcome digital poverty in rural Alberta

Right now some 80 per cent of indigenous communities don’t have access to reliable Internet in the province, and roughly 67 per cent of rural communities can’t get a stable connection.
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The province is hoping its $150 million injection into rural Internet access will be matched by private-sector investment and federal funds to reach the $1-billion mark. FILE PHOTO/St. Albert Gazette

On Thursday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced the province would be investing $150 million to help connect rural Albertans to better Internet services.

He said he hopes the money will inspire the federal government and the private sector to bring the total investment up to $1 billion.

“We want to ensure that all Albertans in every region of our province benefit from the promise and potential of the digital economy,” Kenney said.

“Our goal is to put together but a billion-dollar package between us, the feds, and private-sector telecommunications companies. This is the initial investment that will we hope will get the ball rolling on that.”

Right now some 80 per cent of Indigenous communities don’t have access to reliable Internet in the province, and roughly 67 per cent of rural communities can’t get a stable connection.

“This just is no longer acceptable,” Kenney said.

Roughly 12 per cent of Alberta families across the province, or around 200,000 households, lack the basic speeds the federal government has said are required for adequate Internet service.

While that 12 per cent sounds like a small number, those homes are in rural and Indigenous communities, and matter just as much as the homes in the rest of the province, he said.

“This limits the ability of those communities to attract investment and participate fully in our growing digital economy as well as benefit from services like digital health care,” Kenney said.

“We believe we'll be able to secure additional federal funds for rural and remote and Indigenous broadband connectivity, and we'll be able to leverage even larger investments from the private sector – telecommunications companies – as partners, as we do everything we can to move toward 100-per-cent acceptable speed of Internet access for Albertans, regardless of where they live.”

Paul McLauchlin, president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, said that, based on their own testing in the province, even fewer communities have access to appropriate Internet speeds, which makes this a case of digital poverty.

Without appropriate Internet speeds, rural Alberta can’t effectively deliver on key services, such as good governance and justice.

“It's really a poverty of justice and democracy and we're getting to a situation where this is a big problem,” McLauchlin said.

Slow Internet speeds in rural Alberta impacted the way kids were able to learn online during COVID-19. Many families spoke out, saying it was nearly impossible to take online courses because of this.

Alberta Associate Minister of Economic Development Nate Horner said the pandemic highlighted the problems with rural Internet.

“It was made very clear, though, the problems that families had as schools moved from in-class learning to online, and the difficulties caused [to] many school divisions and families. There is so much room for improvement,” Horner said.

McLauchlin, who is the Reeve of Ponoka County, said that during the in-class learning shutdowns, residents were going to the Tim Horton's or library parking lots to use the Internet from businesses to take their exams.

While it makes schoolwork tough for kids, it can also make doing business a challenge. 

Nate Glubish, Minister of Service Alberta, said slow Internet speeds may prevent companies from moving to rural Alberta.

“Many rural businesses have difficulty growing and expanding because a lack of connectivity makes it difficult, if not impossible, to effectively maintain an online presence,” Glubish said, adding many have to relocate to urban areas to remain viable.

“I saw the difficulty the rural communities were facing when trying to attract private investment, which so often hinges on access to broadband connections. Let me just say that Internet access is no longer a luxury,” Glubish said.

With better access to Internet services, and as working remotely has increased in popularity, Gubish said Service Alberta expects the gross domestic product to grow between $500 million and $1.7 billion, and that the connection will help attract new businesses, create jobs, and build real-estate markets in rural communities.

Glubish said that while it is important for all Albertans to access broadband, he wants to ensure Indigenous communities have access to the Internet for several key reasons.

“Improving access to broadband will support digital literacy, and career growth in our First Nations and Metis communities, including [among] Indigenous youth, which is one of the fastest growing demographics in Canada. This will help to build a stronger and more vibrant future for our entire province,” Glubish said.

Grand Chief of Confederacy of Treaty Six Billy Morin said 20 laptops were donated to his schools in Enoch Cree Nation for students to learn online during the pandemic, but the Internet connectivity wasn’t there to support the learning.

Morin said right now there are conversations happening around bringing tele-health to Indigenous communities that can’t get into the cities for services, but broadband improvement will be key to delivering these services.

“This is foundational infrastructure that's going to take us through the 21st century,” Morin said.

It is estimated it will cost $1 billion to connect Albertans to the targeted Internet speeds set out by the federal government.

The federal Liberal government launched a Universal Broadband Fund in 2020 as part of their pledge to connect 98 per cent of Canadians to high-speed Internet by 2026, with the remainder slated for completion by 2030.

The goal is to have Canadians at speeds of 50 Megabytes-per-second for downloads, and 10 Megabytes-per-second for uploads. According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, fewer than nine per cent of rural Alberta communities has access to those speeds.

The federal government has set aside $1.75 billion for the projects. Earlier this year the federal government announced it would spend $5.4 million for Internet projects in rural Alberta. Telus committed an additional $3.7 million to the pot, which will connect around 5,000 homes.

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Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta.
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