Mayor Alanna Hnatiw announced Nov. 24 during the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) conference that the county had hired Canadian Fiber Optics to design, build, and maintain a $7.3-million fibre optic network in the county’s southwest.
A 2020 study by the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board found that Sturgeon County had the lowest maximum advertised Internet speeds in the region at 25 megabits per second — roughly half the CRTC’s target of 50 Mbps.
County residents have long struggled with slow Internet access, Hnatiw said, speaking at the Edmonton Expo Centre. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified those struggles, with many residents camping out outside of schools and libraries last year to access Wi-Fi so they could work and study.
“We simply cannot afford to wait when it comes to high-speed Internet,” Hnatiw said.
Council authorized administration to borrow $7.3 million in April to build a fibre-optic network that would enhance Internet speeds around Villeneuve, Calahoo, Rivière Qui Barre, and the Heritage and Pro North Industrial Parks.
Hnatiw said the county chose to put its fibre network in this region because it will give the biggest speed boost to the greatest number of people. The network will introduce new opportunities for education, business, and agriculture, and could draw more investment to this region.
RMA president Paul McLauchlin praised Sturgeon County for taking this step and likened it to how farmers back in the day would pay to put up power poles to help bring electricity to rural areas.
“Sturgeon County, in this situation, they’ve put up the poles,” he said.
Rural broadband is the number one priority among rural municipalities right now, with access to it being one of the first things people ask him about when thinking of moving to Ponoka County, said McLauchlin, who is Reeve of Ponoka County. RMA research suggests rural Alberta has one of the worst rates of broadband access in Canada, with just 10 per cent of residents meeting the CRTC’s 50/10 Mbps target (50 download, 10 upload).
McLauchlin blamed this situation on the province’s lack of a broadband strategy and underinvestment in the SuperNet (a fibre-optic network that connects schools, libraries, and other public buildings), and noted how Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba had all recently made significant investments in rural broadband.
McLauchlin said government investment in rural broadband is important because it currently isn't economically viable for companies to go into many rural areas.
“This problem, right out of the gate, is a $1-billion problem,” McLauchlin said, and industrial, municipal, provincial, and federal leaders have to come together in Alberta to solve it.
McLauchlin said Sturgeon County has set a model here for others to follow, and he hopes it will motivate others to take action.
Canadian Fiber Optics co-founder Jodi Bloomer-Kaput said her company (established in 2017) focused on bringing fibre optic networks to rural areas such as Valleyview. The network going into Sturgeon County will provide at least 100/100 Mbs access speeds and be capable of up to 10,000 Mbs.
County corporate services director Jesse Sopko said residents will initially have to sign up with Northern Lights Fiber (a division of Canadian Fiber) to use the network, with other providers given access later. Sturgeon County will get a cut of the cash Northern Lights makes off network users and put it toward the network’s loan payments.
Sopko said most of the network’s fibre lines will be laid on public lands, with private access to homes (consisting of trenches a few inches wide) subject to landowner approval.
Sopko said administration will now finalize the network’s design with Canadian Fiber and hold open houses on the project in the coming months. Construction will start next spring, with the first homes connected by Summer 2022.
Visit sturgeoncounty.ca/internet for details.