Fort McMurray region looking at ways to improve internet in rural communities

When guests stay at Lena McCallum’s bed and breakfast in Conklin, Alta., they often complain about the internet. 

Slow internet access frustrating for residents, councillor says

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is trying to improve access to the internet in rural communities. Many internet users in Anzac, Conklin and Janvier rely on satellite dishes to stay connected. (David Tribe)

When guests stay at Lena McCallum's bed and breakfast in Conklin, Alta., they often complain about the internet. 

"Today, especially the younger people have complained about it," McCallum says. "I would like to see better service in the future." 

When there's a complaint, McCallum, 74, gets on the phone to her internet provider. 

"It's frustrating always phoning because it's slowing down."

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is working on finding a solution for the rural communities' internet woes. 

Earlier this month, the municipality issued a request for information to find a company willing to look into internet options for Janvier, Anzac and Conklin.

People in the communities rely on satellite internet, which is slower and more limited than a fibre-optic link. 

The municipality wants the bidder to gauge the interest of private companies and assess the cost associated with different internet options.

The goal is to bring high-speed internet, 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload, to rural communities in order to "bridge the digital divide between rural and urban internet access and cost," the request says. 

Internet speed has long been a concern with residents, says Coun. Jane Stroud. (Sam Martin/CBC )

The effort is part of a motion council passed in 2018 supporting the Federation of Canadian Municipalities' initiative toward a national broadband strategy. 

Coun. Jane Stroud said the internet has always been a big concern with residents. 

"I've been on council since 2010 and when I go around knocking door to door, this has always been an issue."

Stroud recalled a teacher who lived in Conklin who wanted to take online courses, but couldn't download the material. 

As Stroud lives close to the radio tower in Anzac, her internet isn't too bad, but anyone one living on the other side of town has much slower internet, she said. 

"I know of one customer who could not connect at one point, there was no room on the grid," Stroud said.

Fiber-optics link unlikely

David Tribe, who builds and installs the internet satellite dishes in Wood Buffalo, said a fiber-optic line to the communities would be prohibitively expensive.

If a company was to link the communities with a fibre optic line, "they'd put me out of business," Tribe said.

"Do I have concerns that fibre's going to go to Janvier? Not at all. They're probably never going to put it there. Same thing with Anzac. It's just super expensive." 

Tribe said there's a lot of demand for satellite internet. He installs three satellite dishes a day, and said if he hired an employee he would do six a day.

David Tribe installs about three satellites a day, but could double that if he hired an employee. (Submitted by David Tribe)

"In Fort McMurray we get speeds anywhere from 100 Mbps right up to 300 megabits, where in rural areas like Conklin and Janvier they get anywhere from 1.5 to 25."

Since satellite internet comes with a data cap in the rural areas, the cap can be managed, people just need to be smart with their data, Tribe said.

When Tribe installs a satellite, he tries to teach the customer how to get the most out of their internet, he said.

It's about reducing the resolution on a video, he said.

"That's how you're going to get the best value out of your money."

"I have some customers where I'm selling them 100 gigs and they're literally getting 23 hours of YouTube a day." 

The request for bids closed on July 25.


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