Navigating Rural Connectivity: Insights from the Alberta Rural Connectivity Forum

On November 6-7, 2023, industry leaders and advocates, including ROCK’s Founder and President Joe Hickey, attended the Alberta Rural Connectivity Forum in Banff. The forum provided a fascinating glimpse into the current landscape and future trajectory of broadband in the province. In this post, we’ll highlight some key takeaways and shed light on the crucial facets of rural connectivity in Alberta.

The stage was set by highlighting the digital divide in Alberta. Urban communities have access to the best digital infrastructure with the lowest prices, whereas in rural communities, infrastructure and high speeds are sparser. Nationally, 91.4% of urban households have access to highspeed internet. This number drops to 62% in rural communities. Alberta lags below the national average where only 40.7% of rural households have access to high-speed connectivity.

The Path to Rural Broadband in Alberta

Practical considerations of rural connectivity took centre stage, transitioning from the ‘why’ to the ‘how.’ Critical questions were posed, exploring how to connect farms effectively, ensuring high-quality broadband for Indigenous communities, and building adaptable infrastructure to meet evolving needs.

A comprehensive comparison of broadband technologies unfolded, highlighting fibre as the gold standard due to its speed, reliability, and high capacity. However, the nuances of wireless options, including fixed and mobile wireless, were also examined in the context of deployment costs and speed.

An insightful analysis of policy and regulation followed, scrutinizing unprecedented commitments, actual spending, and the need for a comprehensive approach to ensure affordability. There was an overview of the Alberta government’s broadband strategy, outlining the ambitious goal of achieving 100% connectivity by March 31, 2027. Detailed insights into funding allocations and the upcoming opportunities with the Alberta Broadband Fund added depth to the discussion.

A Deeper Dive into Rural Connectivity Challenges and Opportunities

Joe Hickey joined a panel to discuss the challenges and opportunities related to building broadband in Alberta.

The discussion kicked off with some opening thoughts on rural broadband in Alberta. The digital divide, attributed to the inaction of large telecom companies, was explored, with a historical perspective on their reluctance to invest in rural Canada. With government funding now available, the dynamics are shifting, presenting a prime opportunity for communities, especially rural, remote, and Indigenous, to take control of their connectivity future. The concept of community broadband networks, operating on an open-access model, was introduced as a means to empower consumers with real choices, foster competition, and drive down prices.

Addressing the significant government funding earmarked for broadband builds, the panelists shared perspectives on the positive impact of government intervention in the market. The benchmarking of 50/10 Mbps by 2030 was viewed as a commendable goal, setting a baseline standard for broadband access. However, there was a call for flexibility, recognizing the evolving technological landscape, and the potential need to revisit benchmarks to align with future demands.

The discussion extended to the value that small providers bring to the telecom market and consumers. Small providers were seen as vital in bridging the digital divide, offering tailored services, personalized customer support, and introducing healthy competition that drives down prices, improves service quality, and encourages innovation.

Insights into the Rogers-Shaw merger revealed concerns about its impact on the market and consumers. The motivations behind the merger, the potential reduction in competition, and the government’s conditions were scrutinized. The merger’s potential adverse effects on consumer affordability and competition were highlighted, emphasizing the need for true competition involving diverse service providers.

The collapse of the independent wholesale market over the last year raised concerns about reduced competition, potentially leading to higher internet prices. The importance of a competitive telecom market in benefitting consumers with choices, innovation, and potential price reductions was underscored.

The trend of municipalities taking a more active role in deploying broadband within their communities was explored. The reasons behind this shift included the frustration with large telcos’ inaction, municipalities’ deep understanding of local needs, and the financial incentives for communities to own and operate their networks. The flexibility and nimbleness of local governments were acknowledged as accelerators for broadband deployment.

The game-changing potential of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) technology, especially Starlink, was discussed. While recognized as promising, concerns were raised about scalability, affordability, regulatory considerations, and the need for LEO technology to complement traditional broadband infrastructure rather than entirely replace it.

Conclusion

The Alberta Rural Connectivity Forum provided a comprehensive exploration of the challenges and opportunities in achieving widespread broadband access. The insights shared by the panelists highlighted the evolving landscape of rural connectivity, emphasizing the importance of collaboration, community empowerment, and innovative approaches to bridge the digital divide in Alberta and beyond.

As municipalities increasingly take charge of deploying broadband, recognizing the advantages of local governance, collaboration, and adaptability, leaders interested in championing connectivity initiatives in their communities can benefit from expert guidance. ROCK Networks, with its experience in the field, can serve as a valuable resource for those seeking to navigate the complexities of community broadband projects. ROCK can provide tailored advice on deploying community broadband networks, navigating regulatory landscapes, and leveraging government funding to bridge the digital gap effectively. To learn more, get in touch with one of our broadband experts today.

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