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Broadband funding announcement misses important details

Posted on March 24, 2022 by Sunny South News

By Erika Mathieu
Sunny South News

The provincial government recently announced a funding partnership with the federal government called the Alberta Broadband Strategy, which will aim to provide every Albertan with reliable access to high-speed internet.

Dr. Rob McMahon, associate professor in the Media and Technology Studies Unit and the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta, said of the funding announcement, “this is a long time coming, there has been discussion of a provincial broadband strategy for years now.” The funding strategy aims to provide high-speed connectivity to every Albertan by the end of the 2026-2027 fiscal year. “It is good to see this funding and the collaboration between provincial and federal governments to achieve universal connectivity,” added McMahon.

Minister of Service Alberta, Nate Glubish said, “this historic $390 million broadband investment will help close the digital divide and enable all Albertans to participate in our economic recovery,” and the province called the $390 million investment, “a plan to ensure that every family, household, business and community in Alberta can access reliable, high-speed Internet,” in an attempt to help close the digital divide.”

According to the recent media release from the province, “approximately 489,000 Albertans living in 201,000 households lack access to federal target speeds of 50 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads, and approximately 80 per cent of Indigenous communities and 67 per cent of rural and remote communities do not have access to reliable, high-speed Internet.”

However, many digital scholars have said infrastructure alone will not ensure equitable access to the Internet. Other barriers such as poor digital literacy, lack of access to devices, and a lack of accessibly priced internet services, can limit the extent to which this funding will serve marginalized communities. Dr. McMahon said, “this strategy document isn’t very detailed and focuses primarily on infrastructure deployment and connectivity,” and added, “digital inclusion also considers broader issues related to sustainability and adoption (…) the strategy document focuses on funding to support household internet connections and uses of broadband, but fails to mention other barriers to digital inclusion, such as access to devices, public access sites, and digital literacy.”

With these other considerations, access is not the only hurdle to increasing internet uptake, and affordability of services will likely remain a hurdle for under-connected households. Alberta’s broadband funding strategy will utilize low earth orbit (LEO) satellites to provide connectivity to homes and businesses in remote areas, but McMahon noted, “Starlink services are expensive. The beta service is approximately $600 for equipment (plus) $180 in monthly fees, hardly affordable.”

McMahon also said the province’s strategy does not provide details for how the speed, reliability, and affordability of services will be monitored, and that the strategy contained, “no mention of the SuperNet.” The province-wide fibre optic and wireless network known as the Alberta SuperNet already exists, and connects hundreds of communities, including Metis settlements and First Nations communities. However, in 2018, it was revealed that Service Alberta failed to adequately monitor and manage $1 billion in contracts signed by the government with private companies to build the SuperNet. That year, the province signed a new contract with Bell to manage the SuperNet. This new contract included requirements to provide annual updates on the progress it is making on this plan in addition to creating a, “Contractor Contribution Fund, made up of a redacted percentage of annual revenue, to support rural broadband in Alberta.” However, McMahon noted, “here are no publicly available plans on how the Contractor Contribution Fund will be spent, allocated or accessed.”

“It will be important to measure the outcomes of this significant public investment,” said McMahon with respect to the $390 million in strategic funding.

The funding strategy does not mention rural communities like Vermillion, Viking or Clearwater County, who have already put a lot of effort into improving connectivity on their own. In summer 2020, Vermillion launched a pilot broadband project to provide their community with better broadband speeds by investing $300,000 in MSI funding, after council carefully considered ways to address internet deserts. The pilot project would work toward bridging the digital divide so the municipality would be able to become their own internet providers and compete with companies like TELUS. The Province’s announcement does not mention municipalities like this, “or non-profit, cooperative and Indigenous Internet service providers that can operate on a non-commercial basis and contribute to more competition and choice among service providers.”

McMahon said, “it would be good to see Indigenous communities and the most geographically remote communities prioritized and connected first; but note that engagement and consultation with these communities will be important to ensure their desires are met, and to achieve more efficient deployment and sustainability,” adding “it will be interesting to see who gets funded.”

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