After receiving a notice in my email inbox about going over my monthly internet bandwidth allowance, I couldn’t help but think that the recent debate over usage-based billing in Canada has left out one group: the rural user. While internet users in urban areas have many options when it comes to internet—DSL, cable, fibre—people living in the country often have only one or two choices, satellite or wireless, both of which are lagging inferior options. People who subscribe to satellite or wireless internet are subject to high monthly fees and low speeds and bandwidth limits. For example, Shaw’s basic high-speed plan offers a speed of 7.5Mbps and a 60GB transfer limit for $37 per month while Albertacom’s basic plan offers 1.5Mbps internet with a 12GB transfer limit, all for $40 per month. That’s one-fifth of the service for about the same price. In a day and age where the Internet rules, and online services (such as this very website) are becoming more and more common, it is no wonder that a recent Alberta Economic Development Authority report stated that a “lack of broadband” is one of the major factors for youth migration from rural areas into urban areas in Alberta. This migration is linked with economic instability and a shift in rural demographics. The province of Alberta took the first step in providing reasonable internet services when they built the SuperNet, but it has been underused since the day it was built, and the next step for the province is to provide incentives to small Internet companies that build networks that tie into the SuperNet and speed up the future for all.
The Alberta Supernet had the potential to dramatically change the Internet landscape on our province, putting rural users on a more equal footing with those in the city. However, though the concept of the Supernet was laudable, its implementation unfortunately was not. One of the reasons it is underused is the relatively high costs for small Internet companies to tie into it. And the contractors did the bare minimum required of them, stopping short of practicality in some instances. Just as an example, here in Legal, our point of presence (POP site) for the Supernet is along Highway 2, a bit more than 3 km outside of town. They brought service to the schools and government facilities in town, as was required by their contract, but third party companies aren’t allowed to connect at these locations – only the POP site. And since our POP site is located so far out of town, if a small company wanted to provide ISP services here with the Supernet, they would be looking at a $100,000+ bill just to trench a fibre line to the POP site (to say nothing of monthly Supernet connection charges, which is separate from actual Internet bandwidth as well). Needless to say, that’s never going to happen. So, the Supernet, at least here, will always sit grossly underutilized, and doesn’t live up to the vision put forward when it was conceived.