Friday, February 12, 2010

High–Speed Roulette

There’s an essential component of the concept of “engaged communities” that is badly- and sadly– lacking in most of rural Alberta. That shortfall is the alarming lack of high-speed Internet access. It goes to the very heart of “engagement” and threatens the future of the communities most at risk in post-boom Alberta.
Internet access drives global economic and social engagement. Without high-speed digital access, you’re not going to attract new residents and you won’t retain your young people. If you’re not wired, you can’t tell your story, and if you can’t tell your story, you’re hooped long-term. That’s today’s reality, and it will only become more pervasive as technology evolves. Yet rural Albertans- normally a progressive lot- are adopting a less-than- flattering posture with their rears in the air and their heads in the sand when it comes to their uptake on digital access.
Alberta’s Supernet strategy; rolled out with much fanfare and huge investment has failed to achieve its goals. The failure occurred not because of an inherent flaw in the Supernet concept. It failed because there was a lack of a “first mile strategy”- a strategy to entice rural residents to make the necessary investment in Internet access.
I use the verb “entice” very deliberately. Government assistance has created a dependency in rural Alberta that gets in the way of progress. If the economics don’t yet justify private sector investment, and if the province doesn’t foot the bill, the very best of new initiatives will become a very, very tough sell in today’s Wild Rose Country.
That’s how it has been in Alberta, with the result that many third world countries have a higher rate of Internet uptake than rural Alberta. That spells doom for many communities that are on the cusp.
What makes it sadly ironic is that it doesn’t have to be that way. A historic model exists that could be reconfigured to lead the way to a digitized, energized and invigorated rural Alberta.
That model is the old Alberta Government Telephones. AGT had a mandate to bring telephone service to all Albertans, even those residing in its’ remote corners. It used the profits from urban operations to expand service to remote parts of the province. At completion of the province-wide rollout of phone service, AGT was privatized.
A similar crown corporation could spur Internet uptake in rural Alberta. Without that uptake, community outreach will only extend about a hundred kilometers down the road. In today’s wired world, that’s a one-way road to extinction.