There is a growing digital divide in Sturgeon County.
 
Most residents and businesses in the county are dissatisfied with their current internet service. These impacts have been especially amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, with many people working and learning from home and families fighting for the little bit of bandwidth available to them. 
 
"In a recent survey, over 97 per cent of our residents said that internet access was very important to them and some said that they couldn't live without it," explained mayor Alanna Hnatiw. "It's also a barrier to people who may want to either move out into rural areas or whether or not youth want to stay here and develop their careers out here. With limited access, it is just not as desirable of a place to live." 
 
She especially pointed to the impacts on education, ranging from elementary school to post-secondary. Rural students used to at least be able to access better Wi-Fi in public libraries but, with those being closed due to COVID-19 protocols, they are now left to "park outside of some of these places just to be able to do their homework." 
 
"The federal government and the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) set targets of 50 Mbps downloads," added Hnatiw. "Currently, in the county, we're averaging just a fifth of those federal standards. So, that is really not something that we can sit idly by and continue to allow." 
 
Recently, the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board (EMRB) conducted a study which found that the entire area's gross domestic product could see growth upwards of $100-billion – if it had a stronger internet backbone.
 
However, Sturgeon County does not qualify for federal grant funding under the Universal Broadband Fund due to misleading data that shows the area as being adequately serviced. 
 
Broadband is a type of wide-bandwidth data transmission, and council adopted their own broadband strategy in December of 2020 to take the lead on improving rural connectivity.
 
"We've taken it upon ourselves to consider borrowing up to $7.3-million to improve access throughout the county, and to do what we can to explore other grant opportunities and seek partnership opportunities to off-set those costs," said Hnatiw. "We see this as an essential and basic service. It's an essential utility, really, and it would be our preference that all levels of government would treat it as such." 
  
Second and third readings of the borrowing bylaw will take place in the coming months, with the plan likely being implemented by August. The county has also reached out to internet service providers to see who would be interested in doing business with them. 
 
"Investment in rural broadband is an investment in Alberta's economic recovery and all parties need to be at the table, both industry and government, because it is an essential utility and one that we need to deal with now." 
 
The pilot project's first of six phases will start in the Villeneuve area – due to population densities and high-traction areas such as the Villeneuve Airport and the Alexander First Nation. 
 
Hnatiw also encourages residents to reach out to their local MLA and MP, as well as other higher levels of government, to continue to advocate for change. 
 
"If they're only hearing it from municipalities, it's one of the long laundry list of things they hear about through our advocacy efforts," she added. "It's really important for residents to be able to give real-life examples of the disadvantage that we experience when we don't have that access." 
 
More information on the rural broadband strategy can be found here.