When the country switched to e-learning at the start of the pandemic, rural communities in Alberta were unable to do so due to inadequate internet service.
In Sexsmith, 20 minutes north of Grande Prairie, Mayor Kate Potter said the internet was intermittent, which meant some students in the area couldn’t take classes online.
Students were to be brought into schools, still virtually, but from a device inside the school, using the school’s internet service.
“They didn’t have the connectivity at home to make it happen,” Potter said.
In rural Alberta, internet service is an ongoing problem, with slow upload and download speeds or residents without access to service at all.
On Thursday, the Alberta Municipalities, formerly known as the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, voted in favor of a provincial broadband strategy, which will require measurable goals, concrete actions and a dedicated budget that recognizes broadband as a essential public service.
The digital divide is increasingly limiting access to economic, health, social and educational opportunities in Alberta, according to the resolution.
In Hythe, County of Grande Prairie Com. Brian Peterson said the internet in the community is inconsistent. ISPs say their service is adequate, but Peterson said that is only if a few people are using it.
Once again, community members jump online, the internet slows down to shut down for everyone.
“It was so bad that our village sometimes couldn’t bank online,” said Peterson.
But Hythe, which has now dissolved into the surrounding county of Grande Prairie, decided to build its own infrastructure.
“We own our fiber optic network. So now we have a gigabyte of service for every home, every business, ”said Peterson, former mayor of Hythe.
The community has partnered with a supplier: the city owns 70 percent and the supplier owns 30 percent.
In the community of Clive, a village 15 minutes east of Lacombe, Internet service is “very poor”. Residents do not have access to high-quality internet at all, local elected officials say.
“COVID-19 has definitely made it more visible to our communities, people having to work from home, kids having to home school,” Coun said. Norma Penney
The service was so bad that some students couldn’t go to a virtual classroom with their video on, so teachers couldn’t tell who was taking the lessons, Penney said.
Since students would lose their internet connection if they turned on their video, some local college students taking online classes had to drop their classes for the semester because several classes required a video to be present, Penney said.
Students who felt isolated and searched for mental health services online would see the service drop in the middle of a session, making them more lonely, Mayor Luci Henry said.
Seniors in the community have also struggled, Henry said, as they can’t navigate some of the additional technology needed to improve services.
Access to Internet services has been a problem in rural Alberta for years. This summer, the province pledged $ 150 million to help solve the problem, and Premier Jason Kenney said he hopes the money will inspire the federal government and the private sector to bring the total investment to 1 billion dollars.
“Our goal is to put together a billion dollar package between us, the federal government and private sector telecommunications companies. It is the initial investment that will hopefully get the ball rolling, ”he said during the announcement.
Currently, 80 percent of aboriginal communities in Alberta do not have access to a reliable internet, and about 67 percent of rural communities cannot get a stable connection.
“It’s just not acceptable anymore,” Kenney said.
About 12 percent of Alberta families, or about 200,000 households, do not have the basic speeds required by the federal government for adequate Internet service.
While that 12% appears to be a small number, these homes are found in rural and Indigenous communities and count as much as homes in the rest of the province, Kenney said this summer.
Paul McLauchlin, president of rural municipalities in Alberta, said this summer that, according to their own tests in the province, even fewer communities have access to appropriate internet speeds, making it a case of digital poverty.
Without appropriate internet speeds, rural Alberta cannot effectively deliver key services, such as good governance and justice.
“It really is a poverty of justice and democracy, and we come to a situation where it is a big problem,” McLauchlin said.
It is estimated that it will cost $ 1 billion to connect Albertans to targeted Internet speeds established by the federal government.
The federal Liberal government launched a Universal Broadband Fund in 2020 as part of its commitment to connect 98% of Canadians to high-speed internet by 2026, with the rest to be completed by 2030.
The goal is to have Canadians at speeds of 50 megabytes per second for downloads and 10 megabytes per second for downloads. According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, less than 9% of rural Alberta communities have access to these speeds.
The federal government has set aside $ 1.75 billion for projects. Earlier this year, the federal government announced it would spend $ 5.4 million on Internet projects in rural Alberta. Telus has committed an additional $ 3.7 million to the pot, which will connect around 5,000 homes.