The internet has come a long way since the days when dial-up was the norm — but for many rural communities in Alberta, it doesn’t feel that way.
Rock Solid Nitrogen is located in Vermilion in eastern Alberta. The company relies on internet for almost everything, including keeping track of trucks, updating equipment, training staff and of course, administrative duties.
The problem: an unreliable internet connection.
“We lose our internet functionality, where we are situated, probably on average four to five times a month,” President Randy Martin said.
“Time cost money in our line of business.”
Martin said when the system goes down, it can take hours before it’s back up and running. He said many customers want real time data of trucks pumping nitrogen, or a quick turn around for quotes.
“So they can recover that from the producer… they are working for and there’s times with the system being down, we have to wait four, five to six days.”
Town of Vermilion CAO Kevin Lucas said the slow internet has affected many businesses.
“We have had offshore businesses come to the town of Vermilion and look at setting up their business here, and we weren’t able to provide them with the access to the internet they required,” Lucas said.
“Being able to offer (1 Gbps) service to your home at a very affordable price is exactly what this community was looking for.”
Vermilion doesn’t meet the requirements for funding from the federal or provincial government, because some parts of the town do have high speeds. So the town turned to Alberta Broadband Network, a start-up company sponsored by Meridiam and Digital Infrastructure Group.
“The speeds are nonexistent, “Alberta Broadband Network CEO Ken Spaglingar said. “A lot of these communities are running off copper-based, potentially a coax-based service, which can’t even come close to the services we are providing and speed.”
Spaglingar said Vermilion is the first of community they have partnered with. He said there isn’t a lot of urgency from the larger companies like Telus and Shaw to invest in smaller centres.
“The ability to put a small agile team together to offer our services is a lot easier for us to do than a larger group to come in and navigate.”
Vermilion’s fibre optic cable network is already installed and being used.
“It’s a robust network that’s a very similar style you would see in an urban centre — downtown Edmonton, downtown Calgary.
“What we are doing is we are trying to bridge the digital divide between the urban centres and the rural communities.”
The project costs between $10-15 million to build, and town the contributed $2.4 million.
“For economics that’s a game-changer now, Vermillion has the internet that big business is looking for,” Lucas said.
High speed internet is needed in many rural areas
Cybera is a research and education network looking into the use of digital technology. Policy advisor Imran Mohiuddin said most cities have access to 50 megabytes per second for download and 10 megabytes per second for upload speeds, which is the federal government’s metric for high speed internet.
“When you look at rural communities, this drops to about 40 per cent, and First Nation communities drop to less than 10 per cent,” he said.
“That is broadly the cop of what we call the digital divide in Canada.”
Mohiuddin said the way the federal government maps connectivity in Canada to meet access to their target speeds, means in cases like Vermilion, there will be pockets.
“There may be a pocket that has access to high speed internet, but a larger part of the community doesn’t, or the speed that is available may be enough to support residential broadband use but it’s not enough to support commercial or industrial use.”
He said it also creates this situation, where communities aren’t eligible for funding but at the same time the service providers who are out in the area, won’t build a better network because it’s very expensive.
It’s not even exclusive to towns and rural communities. Some smaller cities in the province are facing this issue too.
The city of Brooks is home to nearly 15,000 people but its internet speeds don’t meet the needs of residents. The city isn’t eligible for funding either.
“Because (the government) could find 50 and 10 speeds within the community — but most of our community can’t do that, I think it’s about 70 per cent of the community can’t do that,” City of Brooks’ CAO Alan Martens said.
“Right now we do have a funded partner and that is Community Network Partners, they work through their parent company Crown Capital (Partners Inc.) So basically our project is just over $20 million — we are picking up $5.8 million of that, they are picking up over $15 million of that.”
The internet is being installed by zones, and is expected to be fully functional by the end of 2023.
“For communities to compete now, especially on a global scale, you do need to have good internet connection. It will allow our businesses to operate anywhere, they will be able to up load those quickly,” Martens said.
“For commerce it will help immensely, they will have no barriers to where and who they have business with.”
Some Canadians looking beyond our border for reliable internet
Some Canadians are also looking outside of the country for their internet needs.
Starlink is an option being explored across Canada, with more people signing up each day. It’s a low-orbit satellite internet service provided by Elon Musk’s companies, SpaceX.
SpaceX has more than 3,200 Starlink satellites in orbit, providing high-speed, broadband internet to remote corners of the world
All the hardware — self-aligning dish, mounts and cables — are shipped directly from the American company to customers at a cost of about $800. As long as it has a clear view of the sky, most remote of properties can access the high speed internet. The service itself costs $140 a month.
The service has caught the attention of some provincial governments: in May, Quebec says it would invest $50 million into getting Starlink to about 10,000 remote homes in the province by the end of September. The homes are located far from the province’s fiber-optic cable network.
Then in July, Nova Scotia offered about 3,700 rural homes and businesses a one-time rebate of up to $1,000 to acquire satellite internet and said Starlink was the only company that can meet the required minimum download and upload speed targets set by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
Other providers were welcome to participate in the rebate program once they meet the minimum requirements of 50 megabytes per second for download and 10 megabytes per second for upload.
Amazon also plans to launch the first of its internet satellites early next year from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
— With files from The Canadian Press