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Symposium brings together experts to improve broadband access for rural Albertans

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 30, 2013

A symposium at the University of Calgary looking at how to improve access to high-speed digital technology in rural Alberta and overcome issues like the “final mile” problem is getting a boost from a federal grant program.

The $25,000 Connections grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) will help the Alberta Digital Futures Symposium focus on how rural communities can build up their broadband capacity and more fully participate in the digital economy by connecting their residential and commercial premises with fibre to the grid.

The symposium, organized by the Van Horne Institute and sponsored by Axia NetMedia Corporation, will bring together a broad range of representatives from industry, government, academia, and local communities for two days of workshops and panel discussions to collectively explore and help identify solutions.

“It’s an exciting time for rural communities,” says symposium lead Mark Wolfe, adjunct assistant professor, and academic director of the Van Horne’s Centre for Information and Communication. “Ten years after the original build of the Alberta SuperNet, emerging models around lower-cost network access, and technological advances in areas like cloud computing, mean that communities have a lot to digest in thinking through how they develop and then leverage advanced network connectivity in their local contexts.

“We see the Digital Futures symposium as designed to help them do that.”

Bridging the final mile

The SuperNet has fulfilled much of its original mandate to serve as a platform for rural economic development. In addition to linking together schools, hospitals, colleges, universities, libraries, and municipal offices, the SuperNet through Axia offers wholesale high-speed services to retail service providers in small communities at prices benchmarked off the Calgary and Edmonton markets.

Despite service improvements over the past decade, fibre to the premise (FTTP) penetration outside Calgary and Edmonton remains low in the residential and small business sectors. The majority of mobility services still depend on lower-speed and less reliable copper connections or other wireless nodes for Internet connectivity.

However, Alberta communities requiring Internet services beyond what is possible with WiFi/WiMax wireless technologies now have fibre connectivity options thanks to investments by both the public and private sectors. One community that has already taken action is the town of Olds, where local agencies and community groups banded together in 2012 to build a high-speed fibre optic network at a cost of around $14 million. Other communities now implementing FTTP initiatives include Drayton Valley and Vulcan.

“How can we help rural communities in Alberta achieve what Olds has done over the last 10 years, but in a fraction of the time and cost?” asks Wolfe. “Alberta is strongly positioned to advance its broadband capacity, but leadership is required at all levels.”

Workshops at the Alberta Digital Futures Symposium will address:

  • Technical issues and applications: What are the common technical barriers faced by rural communities, how does a community source expertise, and are there ways to achieve economies of scale?
  • Governance: What are the key governance elements required to guide decision-making, recruit talent and sustain a business model?
  • Socio-economic considerations: What are the financial barriers, how and when do you effectively engage a community in planning, and are there emerging business models in the Alberta rural context?

“Symposium participants will come away with an expanded network of experts and contacts, as well as a more informed understanding of how to mobilize vision and resources,” says Bryndis Whitson, Van Horne’s manager of strategic development and member relations.

More about Van Horne

The Van Horne Institute, headquartered at the University of Calgary, assists industry, government, and the public by providing public policy direction, education, and research in the fields of transportation, supply chain and logistics, and regulated industries. Partners include the universities of Calgary and Alberta, Athabasca University, and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. Its diverse membership includes aviation, motorcoach, railway, oil and gas, energy, information and communication, and engineering companies, as well as law firms and governments.

For more information about the Alberta Digital Futures Symposium or to register, visit the website. The symposium will be held at the Rozsa Centre, University of Calgary, Nov. 14-15, 2013.