Sluggish internet slows growth, frustrates businesses in small-town Alberta

Many Alberta communities are losing opportunities for business without solid internet service; just 13 per cent of them have service that meets target speeds set by the CRTC.

Few communities outside Edmonton and Calgary meet target internet speeds set by the CRTC

Only 13 per cent of Alberta communities have internet service that meets target speeds set by the CRTC. (Denis Rozhnovsky/Shutterstock)

To run her small-town business, animal trainer Colleen McCarvill needs a reliable internet connection.

But for two-and-a-half weeks, starting just before Christmas, she had no wireless connectivity on her acreage outside Onoway, Alta.

It taxed her patience, and cost her money.

"You are so reliant," said McCarvill, who moved to the area three years ago. "I would have never lived here had I known that I would be this incapable of running (a business).

"If someone can't reach me, or I can't reach them through marketing, they go somewhere else."
Colleen McCarvill is an animal trainer and behaviour specialist who runs a business from an acreage just outside Onoway, Alta. (Supplied/Colleen McGarvill c/o Muttlove Photography)

Unreliable internet connections in smaller Alberta communities are hardly unique to Onoway. In a report to the provincial government last year, a consulting firm found that — excluding Edmonton and Calgary — just 13 per cent of Alberta communities have service that meets target speeds set by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission.

The provincial government has said it is working on a broadband strategy, while the federal government has promised millions to improve connections in rural and remote parts of the country. Good service is increasingly viewed as a necessity, not a luxury, to ensure people have sufficient economic and social opportunities.

But even in Onoway, less than 70 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, many still struggle to find reliable service.

When McCarvill first moved to the area, she used a smaller service provider that offered what she characterized as a terrible connection. Then she switched to Telus, which provided a great year of service, followed by more frequent service disruptions.

Just before Christmas, she lost her connection entirely. She purchased an extra data package to stay connected using her iPhone, until her service was partially restored on Tuesday.

'This needs to be viewed as an essential service'

McCarvill said her options are limited, but include the possibility of moving to a different community.

For Dustin Medori, president of Onoway-based Academy Fabricators, that's not possible. The company employs almost 200 people.

His team has looked at everything, including the possibility of purchasing a fibre-optic cable.

"Telus has supported us," he said. "They've given us different pricing and options to look at fibre-optic cabling. But for companies our size, it's not really an option."

The company has been in Onoway since 2006. While spotty internet has always been an issue, it has become more of a concern as the company has grown, with more people, more files, and more technology.

"If we want to see communities like Onoway or others in the province grow and attract new business, this needs to be viewed as an essential service," Medori said. "No different than water and electricity.

"To have a limiting factor of the internet really impedes on business and town growth."

In a statement to CBC, Telus stated it was "actively working" with McCarvill to resolve her issues. The company noted McCarvill uses a Smart Hub, and that it has sent her a new unit. 

"A Smart Hub provides home Internet service through a connection to Telus' wireless LTE network and our wireless network in the area experienced heavier than normal traffic over the holiday season, which may have contributed to this customer's experience."   
Onoway is less than 70 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, but internet service remains unreliable for many in town. (Supplied/Wikipedia)

Wyatt Skovron, a policy analyst at Rural Municipalities of Alberta, said the organization has been calling for the federal and provincial government to work more directly with municipalities to get quality broadband internet service to places that need it.

While some federal government programs are meant to do that, they often involve partnerships with a commercial service provider, which must think about profits, he said.

In some small communities, the local government has purchased broadband infrastructure, while others have partnered with an internet service provider to build the infrastructure. But the challenges for municipalities, and for commercial companies, are the same.

"These upfront investments aren't cheap," Skovron said.

"So there's only so many municipalities that have the capacity or the foresight to dedicate that money and their resources and stuff to it. It's tough. It's one of those things that pays off in the long run but the upfront costs are significant."