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November 7, 2011

Premier Pushes for Broadband Service in Rural Alberta

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Rural Albertans stuck in a bygone era of low-speed, snail-paced Internet connections may finally catch up to their urban counterparts.

Premier Alison Redford is calling on two recently-appointed cabinet ministers to deliver broadband service to parts of the province on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The Tories vowed more than a decade ago to make Alberta a world leader in rural Internet connectivity with a plan to build a $300-million, high-speed network across hundreds of communities.

Dubbed the SuperNet, it promised to deliver the same kind of broadband service found in Calgary and Edmonton to most of the province.

However, some estimates suggest that roughly half a million Albertans continue to fight for better Internet speeds - if they can access the Internet at all.

It’s something that needs to change, according to Redford.

"We haven’t focused on it as a priority . . . (It) seems to have been more of a problem between government departments not wanting to take ownership, or not knowing exactly who’s the leader," she said.

Cabinet ministers Manmeet Bhullar and Evan Berger share responsibility for the SuperNet under the Service Alberta and Agriculture and Rural Development portfolios, respectively.

In a mandate letter made public Friday, Redford directed both men to work together to find a solution.

"The time has arrived to finally deal with this," said Gerald Rhodes, who serves as executive director of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties.

"There’s no such thing as highspeed Internet through a cable company in rural areas. You can’t get DSL service from your local phone provider. What everyone takes for granted in the city doesn’t exist everywhere."

In a 2010 report, the Alberta Economic Development Authority called on the province to identify broadband as an essential utility, not unlike basic telephone service.

It also said the SuperNet has failed to live up to its promise: "The SuperNet backbone has improved penetration of broadband networks into rural Alberta, but for the most part remains seriously underutilized."

When the high-speed network officially launched in 2005, it delivered broadband to every community with at least one school, hospital, library or government office. That left the door open for private Internet service providers to supply the final leg of the connection between the SuperNet and individual homes and businesses, otherwise known as "the last mile."

But in areas with low population densities, there’s often little financial incentive for Internet service providers to do so. And Alberta’s rugged geography sometimes makes it physically difficult to bring highspeed connections to certain parts of the province.

Service Alberta Minister Manmeet Bhullar said he will work with agencies like the association of municipal districts and counties and other stakeholders to identify where coverage gaps exist and how to best deliver high-speed service to those underserved areas.

The goal is to bring broadband connectivity to 98 per cent of the province, said Bhullar. "Part of my objective is to first establish with as much factual certainty as possible which communities are without Internet service and why. That’s No. 1.

"From there we need to establish the various causes of connectivity issues - and there’s a wide range from what I’m told."

According to Redford, the rural connectivity initiative is a matter of re-shifting government priorities and can be achieved at "fairly reasonable cost."

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald

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