In many rural communities in Alberta, the lack of broadband internet access is a major concern. Due to the geographic distances between homes and businesses, as well as the sparse population of rural regions, service providers have little incentive to invest significant capital in supplying internet services. This results in many rural residents having limited or no access to the internet. The absence of reliable internet access in rural Alberta can have serious consequences. For instance, rural residents without internet access are unable to benefit from online education, remote employment, virtual healthcare, or stay in touch with their families and friends. Unconnected residents are therefore left with little choice but to pay a hefty monthly fee for satellite internet, rely on public Wi-Fi as a means of connectivity, or use wireless devices such as smartphones to stay connected.
For Clearwater County, the lack of broadband connectivity is a major concern as it is in many rural areas across Alberta. According to Jerry Pratt, the county’s Economic Development Officer, internet connectivity within the county is sporadic; some pockets of the county enjoy excellent internet service, while other areas are plagued with reduced or non-existent access. As with many rural communities, Clearwater County’s broadband connectivity issues were particularly acute during the pandemic, when many businesses, offices, and schools were forced to shut down. Even in the absence of widespread lockdowns, connectivity issues remain prevalent across the county.
A six-phase strategy for broadband deployment has been developed by Clearwater County to help attract business investment and aid the local economy. Phase one of the strategy will connect to Olds and provide the county with a backup system in case the connectivity between Rocky Mountain House and Red Deer is disrupted. Additionally, fibre optics are being run out to Nordegg and are nearly complete.
As much as the county is committed to ensuring reliable broadband internet access throughout its region, it continues to face difficulties in obtaining adequate grant funding to support its efforts. The county’s struggle to obtain grants and funding underscores the challenges many rural communities face for their broadband infrastructure projects.
The efforts of Clearwater County in building broadband infrastructure throughout its region illustrate not only the importance of reliable broadband internet connectivity in rural areas, but also the critical role public funding plays in the successful expansion of rural broadband services. Increased collaboration between governments can streamline existing funding opportunities and maximize funds to support larger rural expansion projects.