Access to the internet has become a necessity in the modern world, and getting through the pandemic world has shown its need.
Many people are working from home, going to school, and getting their entertainment in the past 18 months through the internet, a shift for some and a challenge for others to overcome where connectivity isn’t great.
“You don't even have to go that far out of the city to find areas that are lacking in coverage, so in that digital age we're in now, people are very reliant on reliable and high-speed internet connection,” said Larry Gibson, chair of the Grande Prairie and District Chamber of Commerce.
The province announced a $150 million investment into rural and remote areas to ensure faster and more reliable internet service on July 22.
Meanwhile, projects have been ongoing in the South Peace.
The Village of Hythe in 2020 awarded GPNetworks a $700,000 contract for fibre optic internet lines to be connected to the village, with about 30 per cent of funding coming from federal grants.
Canadian Fiber Optics (CFOC) also announced its recently completed industrial 10 Gbps fibre internet connectivity to service patrons along Hwy. 40 from Grande Cache and on through to Wembley.
“It is really important to engage and consult with communities to ensure that the design is such that it's meeting their needs,” said Jodi Bloomer-Kaput, co-founder of CFOC.
In Sexsmith, the economic development advisory committee has been reviewing potential improvements in broadband for the town, but to date there has been no investments made by the town, said Rachel Wueschner, Sexsmith chief administration officer (CAO).
Wembley has recently been connected with a fibre optic network, increasing the speed of internet in the town.
“I know that we have a new provider that has been keenly offering faster internet options to our ratepayers, but the town itself has not put in any financial or contractual agreement with a specific provider such as the one made in Hythe,” said Noreen Zhang, Wembley CAO.
On Aug. 9, Beaverlodge council discussed the expansion of broadband internet in the town and that they believed it would be best left in the hands of a private company to bring the service to the town.
County residents have various amounts of different options for their internet service. Nick Lapp, director of planning and development services at the County of Grande Prairie said the municipality is working at finding where service is available and where the gaps lie.
“The opportunities are there, but the county hasn't made that final decision as to whether to directly invest in infrastructure or to allow private industry to provide the service and adapt the service as they see demand,” said Lapp.
The county also faces a unique problem compared to other municipalities in the geographical size.
Some areas may be easily accessible by a fibre optic option, while others may have better luck in the wireless realm or a hybrid of both, said Lapp.
Ultimately, the decision will be up to the county council on how they want to proceed with internet connectivity investments, he said.
Some companies like CFOC are stepping up to the challenge.
“We've actually designed a very large scale project, we've applied for a grant, if we're successful, we'll be able to bring fibre to 80 per cent of the farms and acreages in one very large county that has a population density of point nine people per square kilometre,” said Bloomer-Kaput.
The design of the network needs to be re-thought to make it work, he said.
“Historically, fibre infrastructure has been designed similar to highways where we've got on, and off-ramps, those on and off-ramps are for important exits to get to bigger towns or communities, they certainly don't give access to every acreage or farm along the way.
“We looked at fibre design fundamentally differently where we're saying … we need to design it so that we're building on township roads and range roads, so we need access points, very regularly,” she said.
“About 80 per cent of Indigenous communities and 67 per cent of rural communities do not have access to the high-speed internet targets set by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC),” said the province in a release.
The CRTC declared broadband an essential telecommunication service and set targets for minimum network speeds to be 50 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 20 Mbps for uploads by 2030.
Currently, in the South Peace, internet speeds vary, and options continue to change.
“We're seeing some of our local companies that have been in that space for a while or are kind of hand-in-hand enhancing their businesses right now, and we are seeing some new players coming into the area as well,” said Gibson.
The County of Grande Prairie shows 11 internet service providers (ISP) on its website, with another to start servicing the county sometime this summer.
Satellite options like SpaceX’s Starlink are expected to come to the county soon.
Starlink’s website says that their program will be on a first-come, first-serve basis with a waiting list, but they boast data speeds of 50 to 150 Mbps.
“The actual delivery of the internet itself and what it's capable of low Earth orbit satellites is going to be an excellent second-best technology to fibre, they'll even say themselves we've had customers who have talked to Starlink saying should we go with you or should we go with fibre and Starlink is actually said to our customers, ‘go with fibre if it's available, we can't compete,’” said Bloomer-Kaput.
Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Town & Country News