Alberta commits $150M to boost rural high-speed internet, seeks private and federal support

Alberta is committing up to $150 million to improve high-speed internet connectivity in rural, remote and Indigenous communities.

Premier Jason Kenney said the money is meant to help bring in contributions from private companies and the federal government.

The government is still working out the details of a timeline and where the $150 million will be spent, it said during the Thursday announcement.

Kenney said Alberta was once a national leader in rural broadband, but has fallen back in the last 15 years.

In 2016, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) declared broadband an essential telecommunications service.

It set a 2030 target to connect every Canadian home and business to minimum network speeds of 50 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads, and 10 Mbps for uploads.

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The province said 80 per cent of First Nations and 67 per cent of rural areas don’t have access to reliable broadband internet coverage that meets the above speeds.

Approximately 201,000 Alberta households — the equivalent of 12 per cent of the population — do not have access to target speeds set by the CRTC.

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Kenney says that means those Alberta homes face an intolerable obstacle in the digital age.

“Many rural Albertans are underserved when it comes to broadband, to wireless, and to connectivity to the digital economy,” Kenney said Thursday.

“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.”

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Paul McLauchlin, head of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, said spotty service forces residents and schoolchildren to go to parking lots at fast-food restaurants to get internet access.

Some people, he said, are even moving to areas with better service.

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Enoch Cree Chief Billy Morin said connectivity is critical, noting 20 laptops were donated to a local school last year but couldn’t be used because of poor connectivity.

“It’s foundational. It’s going to lead to way more effective First Nations participation in the economy, in health sectors (and) tech sectors,” Morin said, referring to the $150-million investment.

“You’ve got to start somewhere.”

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Last November, the federal government launched the multi-billion-dollar Universal Broadband Fund to support high-speed internet projects across the country.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the fund will see 98 per cent of Canadians connected to high-speed internet by 2026.

The Universal Broadband Fund is only one of many federal programs, often with similar or complementary mandates.

Read more: Feds add $750M in funding to broaden access to high-speed internet in Canada

In a news release sent Thursday, the province said the total cost of expanding rural broadband internet to underserved areas of Alberta is estimated at $1 billion and UCP government is working with Ottawa and the private sector to share the cost.

— With files from Karen Bartko, Global News

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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