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Alberta commits $150M to jump-start rural broadband; seeks private, federal support

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CAMROSE, Alta. — Alberta is committing up to $150 million to improve internet service in rural, remote and Indigenous communities.

Premier Jason Kenney says the money is meant to help attract contributions from private companies and the federal government.

The United Conservative government is still working out the details of a timeline and where the $150 million would be spent.

Kenney says Alberta was once a national leader in rural broadband, but has fallen back in the last 15 years.

The province says 80 per cent of First Nations and 67 per cent of rural areas don't have access to reliable broadband internet coverage.

Kenney says that means about 12 per cent of Alberta homes face an intolerable obstacle in the digital age.

"Many rural Albertans are underserved when it comes to broadband, to wireless, and to connectivity to the digital economy," Kenney said Thursday.

"This limits the ability of those communities to attract investment and participate fully in our growing digital economy as well as benefit from services like digital health care."

Paul McLauchlin, head of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, said spotty service forces residents and schoolchildren to go to parking lots at fast-food restaurants to get internet access. Some people, he said, are moving to areas with better service.

Enoch Cree Chief Billy Morin, saying connectivity is critical, noted that 20 laptops were donated to a local school last year but couldn't be used because of poor internet service.

"It's foundational. It's going to lead to way more effective First Nations participation in the economy, in health sectors (and) tech sectors," Morin said, referring to the $150 million. 

"You've got to start somewhere."

Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said the plan is stalled in the starting gate.

“Jason Kenney has no plan, no timeline, and nowhere near enough funding to provide broadband connections to rural Alberta," the NDP leader in a statement.

“While the UCP finally appears to be aware of the issue, the lack of a plan means Albertans will have to continue to wait to see any improvement in internet speeds. 

“Instead of making rural internet access a priority, the UCP chose to gamble $1.3 billion on the failed Keystone XL pipeline. And while foreign shareholders walked away with Albertans’ money from this bad deal, rural Albertans are left without access to basic services."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2021.

The Canadian Press