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Building high-speed internet across rural Alberta would reap big returns: study

The study led by the SouthGrow Regional Initiative, an economic development alliance that represents 26 southern Alberta communities, weighed the costs and benefits to high speed connections for rural communities.

The study says high speed internet for these municipalities could pay back $3.5 for every dollar spent

SouthGrow Regional initiative commissioned the research to determine the impacts of high-speed connections for rural communities in Alberta. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Connecting rural Albertan communities to high-speed internet not only has a selection of benefits, but payback revenue according to a new study.

The study led by the SouthGrow Regional Initiative, an economic development alliance that represents 26 southern Alberta communities, weighed the costs and benefits to high speed connections for rural communities.

After partnering with the province as well as Indigenous communities and the University of Lethbridge, the organization determined that investing in high-speed internet for these municipalities could pay back $3.5 for every dollar spent.

Kien Tran, lead researcher and economics professor at the U of L, says that besides the payback, other benefits include consumers saving as well as improved farm income, business revenue and education.

"Even with the most expensive scenario we got a return of about $2.97 for every dollar we invested." 

'Take it for granted'

Jim Willett, chair of the SouthGrow Regional Initiative as well as the mayor of the town Coutts, says reliable, fast internet access is no longer a luxury, but a necessity for businesses to stay competitive.

"I think we sometimes take for granted that everybody just has high speed Internet and that you can connect instantly. It's a hodgepodge. Once you get out of the cities and into the rural areas, it will vary," said Willett.

He explains that most of the communities in rural Alberta are under served for high-speed broadband networks.

It impacts the whole economy of the province.- Jim Willett

"You get into a lot of communities and they don't have cell phone coverage, nevermind having any kind of internet," he said.

"It's not a large percentage of the population, but it is a large percentage of the province."

In some communities, high-speed coverage is so hard to come by, towns are struggling to survive because of the lack of businesses.

"It's more a situation of people moving on and they're not being able to attract anybody else to come in," said Willett.

"It impacts the whole economy of the province."

Impact on farmers

Willett says the town of Coutts has high-speed internet, but that it varies in the surrounding farmland.

"They're wanting to use the latest technologies and they don't have access to those technologies. So it's holding back the development of the farming and you're not able to operate as efficiently as you want to," he said. 

After receiving the results from the study, Willett and the rest of the alliance have plans to give suggestions to each municipality they represent so they too can receive broadband networks.

Willett says they've also sent their data to Service Alberta and are hopeful to see a determined investment in getting this project done.

"We've given the numbers to them so they at least have something firm to build on," he said.

With files from Elissa Carpenter

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