Engineer Kris Jensen wanted to get back to his roots and raise his family in Cardston County where he grew up. He confidently moved across the country to come back home because he had the kind of job that could be done remotely, or so he thought. He soon learned that, even though the federal government has deemed the internet an essential service, almost all rural areas were still far behind towns and cities with internet infrastructure and capabilities. While a person can easily access the governments suggested minimum speeds of 50 megabytes per second (mbps) down and 10 mbps up in an average city or town, the minute you drive out into the country there is very poor internet access. The wireless telecommunication infrastructure that is available is negatively impacted by the hills and trees we hide our houses behind to protect from fierce southern Alberta winds. Every generation of new technology requires building significantly more towers, which many find to be an eyesore on the beautiful landscape. No matter how much money a person has to spend, the service doesn’t improve, and Jensen is motivated to change this.
Along with a group of like-minded residents from around Mountain View, including Angela Walburger, Annie Van Orman and Jeff Uibel, Jensen has formed the Southwest Connect Coop. The Coop seeks to improve internet infrastructure, starting with the area around Mountain View. They attempt to bring fibre optics to Cardston county, using road allowances to dig shallow utility lines, then lay conduit and run the special glass fiber optic cables. The process would bring enough internet to the area to exponentially improve the quality and access of the internet to rural residents.
Jensen has been consulting with different municipalities in the area about fibre optic and broadband for several years. He has been instrumental in the design and implementation of the fiber optic network in Waterton Lakes National park. Of the new project, he says “if we compare broadband to water, we are still in a phase where we are ‘bucketing’ the internet to our homes and businesses and hoping we have enough for our needs.” Jensen explains that bringing fibre to a house will instead be like bringing a ten foot water pipe to the property line- more capacity than a home could ever need. The Southwest Connect Coop isn’t going to wait around for a big business to improve rural internet. Instead, the team has devised a plan to improve the infrastructure as a community.
“Fibre is the backbone of all telecommunications infrastructure, even for satellite
internet”, Jensen shares, “and we are trying to lay the infrastructure for what our kids might do with the internet in the future.” For now, the team is small. It consists of a “coalition of business owners and professionals who have sacrificed careers in the city to take advantage of raising their families in a rural community”. As Jensen further explains, this team is trying to make their “old careers as accessible as they were before.”
Those buying into the not-for-profit coop will invest approximately $1500.00 as a membership fee. This fee gives each member an equal share and vote in the group and will hopefully be enough to fund the laying of the fibre cables. “We are trying to wisely deploy some cable, keep it affordable, but the priority is to cover as much ground as possible” Jensen shares. “So while there are only a few dozen people signed up at this moment, there are a couple hundred more properties in the footprint we are considering. Interest is growing as folks see this can be a reality.”
The group plans to own the infrastructure and will look to other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to provide internet over fiber. This model is similar to Fortis’s, a company which owns power lines that Enmax and Atco rely on to sell electricity. “An ISP that wants to sell their product to customers on the network would pay a small access fee to the coop which, in turn, would maintain the lines and provide local, physical assistance when required,” says Jensen. Another community group from the Aetna area has been networking with the Mountain View group. The two groups share information and hope to coordinate timing of their fibre projects to see cost-savings through shared economies of scale.
The Southwest Connect Coop is in the late design phase of the project, finalizing their list of sign-ups before proceeding with construction. Both groups have been in communication with Cardston County to discuss access to road easements in order to bury the pipe a contractor would blow fibre through. While the coop has been gauging the county’s appetite for getting involved, no commitments have been made yet. Without pandemic requirements to work from home, who knows how long this process would have taken. The Southern Connect Coop is proof that decision makers and community leaders are trying to make meaningful improvements for rural Southern Alberta. These improvements begin with equal internet access for all.
Elizabeth Thompson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Temple City Star