These days, communication is king. Videoconferencing and other high-speed connectivity applications are indispensable for anyone seeking to compete in the global economy. Without these tools, we are likely to become road kill on the information highway.
Huge swaths of Alberta still lack the essential tools for high-speed electronic communication. Convenient and affordable broadband Internet access is taken for granted in the large and medium-sized centres of the province, but in much of rural Alberta, connecting to the Internet is still done via dialup or at local libraries, if at all.
It's hard to pinpoint the number of Albertans without reliable broadband access, but a conservative estimate would be around 10 percent of the population, or around 350,000—a city the size of Victoria, B.C. Not only is it a big problem for businesses and individuals in rural Alberta, it's an ugly black eye for a province that is obsessed with its competitive position in the global economy.
A decade ago, the provincial government took a quantum leap toward improving rural connectivity by building the SuperNet, a "backbone" of optical fibre superhighways that spans the province and provides at least one high-speed interchange in almost every population centre. This was a critical first step to driving broadband networks into rural Alberta, but the SuperNet remains under-employed.
Outside of such SuperNet-connected public facilities as schools and libraries, gaps and bottlenecks in the "last mile" between SuperNet interchanges and rural homes and businesses are hindering effective utilization of this public infrastructure. The problem comes down to market and regulatory failure.
In Canada, competing service vendors build and operate their own closed networks. This is unprofitable in many rural areas, so markets are left without service. This deeply entrenched business and regulatory paradigm also presents a formidable barrier to market entry, stifling competition.
A much more efficient and effective paradigm is to deliver services over high-capacity shared networks that are open to all competing vendors and accessible by all consumers, just like our networks of public roads, highways and sidewalks.
There are three compelling reasons why all Albertans should be concerned about the lack of connectivity in rural regions.
First, it's an issue of equity. If the province is to be competitive in business, it needs to be competitive everywhere, and for everyone.
It's commonly accepted that provinces can create a positive environment for commerce through favourable taxation policy, education and reliable transportation infrastructure. Basic electronic communication infrastructure needs to extend to everyone in the province as well.
Second, depopulation of rural regions is a serious problem for Alberta. With transformations in agriculture resulting in larger farms and fewer people, many small towns are clinging to life. Economic development options in other sectors such as manufacturing or tourism are limited. But given broad-band Internet access and some entrepreneurial gumption, the business opportunities for rural regions are virtually unlimited.
The third reason follows from the first two: with equitable broadband access and enhanced business opportunities, rural Alberta is potentially open to new sources of public revenue.
Rather than being net recipients of government money for agricultural support and rural development initiatives—something for which rural Albertans are sometimes unfairly accused—they could once again become net contributors to the public coffers.
These days, government cash is scarce. But there are other actions provincial and federal governments could take to improve rural connectivity without having to back up the money truck and spend. Formally recognizing broadband as an essential utility for the 21st century would be the first step.
It's time to bring competitive broadband access to all Albertans.
Until we do, we can hardly talk about being a globally competitive province.