Big boost for rural broadband?

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Study calls for $19 mil investment by Morinville, Sturgeon

Morinville and Sturgeon County should build a $19-million high-speed internet network in the next five years to support local business, says a new report.

Morinville and Sturgeon County councils received a study on rural broadband this week. The $95,000 study (half of which was covered by a provincial grant) was a joint project of the two governments’ economic development departments to see how they could address slow internet speeds in the region.

Pretty much everyone relies on broadband nowadays for video conferencing, cloud-based computing and other services, IBI Group consultant Keith Ponton told Morinville council Monday night.

But unless you’re a big company with deep pockets, you’ve probably got poor service in the county and Morinville. The study found that county and Morinville businesses generally got download speeds of 10.3 and 11.11 megabits (Mb) per second, respectively, compared to the national average of 21.7, the Alberta average of 13.5, and the federal standard of 50.

In an interview, Ponton said some businesses reported speeds in the 1 to 5 Mb/s range along with frequent service outages.

“In some cases it was faster for them to put files in a FedEx envelope and courier files.”

Ponton explained that the big internet providers just don’t want to invest in small markets like Sturgeon and Morinville, which leaves those markets with slow copper wires instead of fast fibre optics. Most businesses his team surveyed could not afford the $20,000 to $100,000 needed to get fibre optics. The Alberta SuperNet fibre optic system runs through the town and county and may have space for businesses, but it’s currently reserved for schools and other public institutions.

Businesses surveyed in the study placed high importance on affordable broadband access, with about 85 per cent saying that the town and county should have a moderate to proactive role in ensuring such service was available.

Broadband bucks

The study proposed that Morinville and Sturgeon invest up to $18.97 million by 2021 to build a fibre optic network for their industrial and business parks, and to pursue federal grants to fund it.

The Morinville network would cost about $1.57 million (about $6,110 per lot) and cover the town’s commercial/industrial regions along 100 St. and 100 Ave.

The county one would cost $8.3 to $17.4 million (up to $18,397 per lot), depending on whether the lines were buried or strung along power poles. This network would eventually connect the Sturgeon, Legal Crossroads, ProNorth, and Villeneuve Airport industrial parks, as well as the Legal, Gibbons, Redwater, Sturgeon Valley, and Bon Accord regions, with the exact route depending on whether the province allows the county to use SuperNet lines.

Ponton said that these networks would draw more internet service providers to the region, make broadband more affordable, and potentially encourage business development.

Ponton recommended that Morinville and Sturgeon start off with pilot projects next year – a $564,400 one for Morinville’s industrial park and a $2.2 million one for ProNorth and Villeneuve – which could be funded through a local improvement tax. The cost of the pilot could drop about 30 per cent if the region was able to use the SuperNet for it.

Morinville council will now review the report and discuss its recommendations later this year, Mayor Barry Turner said in an interview. While he was interested in doing a broadband pilot, he said he would not support borrowing to do so unless it was through a local improvement tax.

“If we’re going to attract and retain the businesses of tomorrow, certainly we have to look at this (broadband) standard,” he said.

A summary of the report is available in the agenda for this week’s Morinville council and Sturgeon County committee of the whole meetings.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.