K-Country seeks much-needed internet upgrades

·6 min read

Kananaskis Improvement District (KID) hopes to go after a grant to boost internet coverage in K-Country.

KID council will have another opportunity to apply for much-needed telecommunications upgrades in the park after the Universal Broadband Fund (UBF) shut the door on its application last year.

The $39-million Alberta Broadband Fund (ABF), announced by the province on Sept. 20, will offer remote communities another opportunity to request funding for broadband projects that did not apply or were not qualified for the UBF – its federal parent program that closed to submissions in March 2021.

“I have heard from many community leaders who are excited by Alberta’s $390-million commitment to rural broadband and the matching $390 million from the federal government,” said Minister of Service Alberta Nate Glubish in a media release. “But I know that many communities were unable to apply to the Universal Broadband Fund in time. That is why I am launching the Alberta Broadband Fund to ensure that no community is left behind. The ABF will help connect even more Albertans, families and businesses to reliable, high-speed internet.”

Coun. Claude Faerden, chair of KID council’s telecommunications committee, said internet usage during peak times has been an ongoing challenge despite Kananaskis only having a recorded population of 220 people, according to 2016 census data.

“A Zoom call at 3 p.m. might not be possible at 5 p.m. once people come home after work and start streaming videos on the internet,” said Faerden, adding the population is likely closer to over 400 including seasonal residents and people who own second homes in the provincial park.

Infrastructure improvements to telecommunications have been a topic of KID council for years and closing the digital divide has become an increasingly high priority as the number of people visiting K-Country continues to grow, and public safety becomes more of a concern.

In 2020, roughly 5.4 million people visited K-Country according to Alberta Environment and Parks data. The number exceeds Banff National Park’s annual average of four million visits and set a record for the provincial park.

Faerden said there are risks to having so many visitors in the park with limited access to wireless and broadband connectivity.

“From a public safety standpoint, we have limited access and we attract a lot of new visitors and recreationalists to the park who aren’t always prepared to recreate outdoors and deal with possible issues without some form of connectivity,” he said.

“There are pitfalls in having these kinds of numbers that can really impact our ability to respond to emergencies within a timeline that’s helpful.”

Increasing safety for visitors, residents and businesses is a key part of KID council’s telecommunications infrastructure plan, which also seeks to build upon digital accessibility, economic prosperity and potential revenue sources for K-Country.

Coun. Erum Afsar, KID council telecoms committee vice-chair, said the overarching goal of the committee – formed in the last year – is to improve broadband and wireless telecommunications in the Kananaskis Valley with a focus on high traffic areas in main corridors like Highway 40.

“Ideally, these areas would have at least a broadband capability similar to more of an urban setting,” said Afsar. “That would be our goal.”

KID council and administration applied to the UBF before the deadline but were unable to include learning outcomes from a then-forthcoming telecoms feasibility study, intended to guide council in their decision-making for improving telecoms and connectivity in K-Country.

The UBF application was ultimately unsuccessful because there was not enough time to collect and provide all the information required.

“A big part of being successful in getting these grants is having good information, good data collection,” Faerden said. “So now we’re trying to do a complete gap analysis.”

Earlier this week, KID council launched an Internet Performance Test (IPT) landing page in partnership with the non-profit Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) to collect data that will help inform telecoms planning efforts in Kananaskis.

The site allows internet users to self-report information including their location and information about their internet package list cost per month and advertised speeds. It then runs an IPT to collect actual internet speeds.

“We’re hoping residents and businesses in Kananaskis can access the page and do a speed test for us so that we can have complete knowledge of the gaps we have,” said Faerden. “This gives us an accurate assessment of the need so that we can put our best foot forward and be successful in getting grant funding for some of these projects.”

For best results, households and businesses in K-Country should use the site at different times to record network speeds as they change throughout the day.

Results from the completed feasibility study, carried out by third-party telecoms company, Rigstar, found households and businesses in the park are averaging an eight Mbps download speed and three Mbps upload speed. The study focused on the Highway 40 corridor, between Highway 1 and Kananaskis Lakes Trail.

The results are a far cry from federal speed targets of 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload set by the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission.

According to Faerden, the speeds highlighted in the study are generous of what’s typical in K-Country.

“Many are reporting worse [speeds] than the average,” he said. “If there’s wind or any weather then the service ends up reducing and sometimes becomes just non-existent.”

Of the homes and businesses studied, many were found to be using wireless modems connected to major telecom providers including TELUS and Rogers, while some rely on satellite-based internet services like Xplornet.

The matter of applying for the ABF when submissions open later this fall hasn’t been put before KID council yet as they haven’t formally met since the news was announced, but Faerden said it’s likely they will request funding from the program with support from the recent feasibility study and other ongoing data collection efforts.

The telecoms committee is also continuing to meet with other rural municipalities and counties that have been “left to go the last mile alone,” said Faerden.

“There’s a lot of rural communities in Alberta working towards these improvements for their residents,” he said. “You don’t have to look hard in Alberta to find examples of small counties and rural areas that are starting to invest in their own infrastructure to complete that last mile of tying into broader networks so that all residences can have telecoms and broadband where they live and where they work.”

Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook