University of Alberta: Digital tech experts work to bring internet to rural and remote communities

Two University of Alberta professors are working to improve internet services for Albertans living in rural and remote communities as members of a new coalition.

The Alberta Rural Connectivity Coalition (ARCC), which U of A digital technology experts Rob McMahon and Michael McNally helped found last fall, is working with steering committee members to bring together Alberta communities to explore ways to build better broadband.

They see ARCC as a space to share ideas, help municipal governments shape policy proposals for decision-making agencies like the CRTC or telecommunications contracts, share success stories and ideas (like attaching a wireless tower to a grain elevator or water tower), and host ongoing discussions about rural broadband.

“The ARCC will help amplify and bring forward the voices of rural residents, and that’s important to ensure broadband policy reflects the needs of the communities involved,” said McMahon, a professor of media and technology studies in the Faculty of Arts.

Broadening access to broadband
Across Canada, only 46 per cent of rural and remote communities have access to minimum broadband speeds set by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which means these communities struggle with poor-quality or no internet service.

That affects everything from running a business or household to working or learning from home—a problem that was exacerbated by the pandemic, said McMahon.

“The ARCC aims to build capacity to bring awareness to the issues of connectivity,” said McNally, a Faculty of Education professor and expert on broadband policy.

“It’s a gateway for capturing municipal perspectives on broadband issues from rural and remote Alberta communities and sharing the information to explore possible solutions at the community and local, provincial and federal government levels.”

Bringing together a “community of communities”
ARCC has its roots in a series of symposiums about rural broadband that ran from 2013 to 2018, including one hosted at the U of A. Those sessions contributed to a collective interest in dealing with the issue, McNally said.

“There was always interest in bringing back together this community of communities in Alberta broadband; it was a good learning environment for municipal leaders.”

Having strong connectivity is important to keeping small rural communities vibrant by helping support their businesses and deliver government services such as remote health care, he added.

“It’s the electricity of the 21st century—an underlying technology that has all kinds of applications.”

As researchers, McNally and McMahon hope to contribute to ARCC by updating an Alberta broadband toolkit they wrote in 2016. The document was created for municipal governments to help them understand broadband possibilities, including establishing community-owned and operated networks.

“If you’re a county reeve or councillor or mayor, information like this is useful in helping solve the issue of broadband by offering an understanding of why it’s important to invest in a network. That’s easier for them, in turn, to explain to their ratepayers,” McNally said.

The two also plan to draw on their previous research experience, which includes working with northern communities in the Northwest Territories on digital literacy and innovation and publishing a paper on the importance of community engagement in developing broadband, beyond investing in infrastructure.

The U of A is also joining the coalition, along with more than 40 other Alberta post-secondary institutions, municipalities, school divisions, non-profit technology advocates, individuals and business associations.

As Alberta’s largest post-secondary institution, the U of A can contribute a unique perspective to the conversation about rural connectivity,said Imran Mohiuddin, policy adviser for Cybera, a not-for-profit organization responsible for driving economic growth in the province through the use of digital technology.

Cybera was a co-founder of ARCC with McNally and McMahon, along with Alberta’s Regional Economic Development Alliances, and hosted ARCC’s first rural connectivity forum last spring.

“The U of A represents a large and diverse base that includes rural, urban and First Nations, Métis and Inuit students and staff,” Mohiuddin said. “By joining ARCC, the university is recognizing the effects of poor connectivity on educational opportunities and the importance of finding policy and technological solutions to Canada’s internet gap.”

Post-secondary institutions like the U of A could also potentially collaborate with ARCC on workshops, seminars and pilot projects around improving rural connectivity, he added.

“The U of A gives us access to leading minds and expertise on this issue.”