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Lethbridge County exploring options to improve municipal internet access 

Posted on May 7, 2019 by Sunny South News

By Nikki Jamieson
Sunny South News

Lethbridge County council has been given an update on potential broadband solutions.

During their regular May 2 meeting, Lethbridge County council received an update on the high-speed broadband situation in the municipality.

In summer 2018, the county undertook a business retention and expansion survey, and one of the top issues identified in the business community was the need for better and higher-speed internet capacity.

Since then, administration staff has been meeting with telecom providers, exploring regional initiatives and exploring possible funding opportunities from provincial and federal agencies/grant programs to enhance the municipality’s broadband internet capacity.

“We have made some significant progress, including starting to get numbers as to what this might cost and what the auctions might be,” said Martin Ebel, economic development officer for the county.

“The good news is that it looks like we will have some attractive options to pursue in large measure driven, I think, in the private sector. There may be opportunities for the county to invest in some public partner, because ultimately, to cover Lethbridge County in a way that would make sense, we will probably need some kind of fibre-optic backbone, and then we use wireless internet technology to cover the larger spots, especially north of Highway 3, and north of the Oldman River.”

Ebel added that technology is rapidly increasing in these areas, and it wasn’t “in the realm of science-fiction”, and is something they could achieve at a reasonable cost and phased in.

Noting that it was a high priority for those that responded to the business survey, coun. Steve Campbell asked if the businesses that responded to the survey were scattered around the county or clustered more to one spot.

Ebel said that there are clusters of businesses around the business park and highways, and some of those can be serviced a bit easier.

He had also met with one of the county’s telecom providers on the Highway 3 corridor, who told him with a few equipment changes and updates they could increase service to that area.

However, in areas that are further away from those main business areas, it would be more difficult to improve service.

“The short answer is, in some areas you will be able to see improvements in service without needing to do massive investments, just because of upgrades and technology,” said Ebel.

Coun. Klass Vander Veen asked if they knew of any businesses that didn’t come to the county because of a lack of internet access.

Ebel replied that while he hadn’t had a business come to him and said they chose not to come to the county specifically because of issues with broadband access, it becomes another factor a business has to consider when locating.

“There’s a whole laundry list of factors that they’re looking at. But I think what we’ll see, especially in the years to come, is if we are behind on high-speed internet accessibility, that will become a bigger and bigger factor in the future.”

Reeve Lorne Hickey expressed his concern that if they didn’t move quickly on this, they would lose business, and ask what they could do to “get this moving faster”.

Ebel said that when administration comes back to council in the next few months, they would provide them with some options as to what to do to speed up the process and make it sustainable over the long-term.

Another thing the county would need to consider was how involved they would like to be.

While a big broadband provider would provide the service, if it’s into a more rural area — where everything is scattered around — Ebel cautioned it may come at a higher cost than some businesses can pay.

However, the county may be able to take ownership over the infrastructure, thus guarantee — on a revenue-generating model for the county — faster level of service and greater capacity then that broadband provider, but work with the provider to ensure the more rural areas get service.

Coun. Morris Zeinstra inquired about the service currently in the county.

Ebel noted that they have “backbone” from large telecom services. However, in the past, even up to the past few years, there wasn’t the same useage that we see today, so not having that high-speed internet wasn’t such a big factor.

However, in the past couple of years, Ebel said there has been “almost a revolution” where big data, sensors, drones and and robotization has become more commonplace.

“The problem is, or the challenge is, that the need, the usage, is skyrocketing in (places like Broxburn) and the existing capacity in the future. In fact, already, in some cases, it isn’t enough, and the problem is going to get more acute. It’s not going to go away,” said Ebel.

Campbell asked how businesses such as those along corridors where fibre-optic is close are connecting to the internet.

Noting it was “hard to give a blanket statement” on it, Ebel said the lines that run along Highway 3 are on the north side, and he believed the majority of businesses south of the highway tie-in using wireless. Some of those businesses have spoken about the possibility of drilling under the highway to tie-in directly, and some have made a considerable investment to tie directly into that line.

“Southern Alberta’s gateway to the  world — as far as the world wide web — is Calgary,” said Ebel.

“I don’t think it’s really a question of capacity, it’s more an issue of architecture, for lack of a better word. Think of the airline industry; right now, the two major hubs in Alberta are Calgary and Edmonton. International flights come into them, and then you get on the smaller planes to come to Lethbridge or go to Red Deer and everything. And I believe that’s how the architecture has been set up, for how the web runs.”

Administration will be returning to council to present potential solutions in a few months.

Council unanimously passed a motion to accept the update for information and continue to support administrative work in assessing broadband needs and network options for Lethbridge County.

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