Solving Municipal Broadband – Strathcona County (Part 2)

Access to adequate internet connectivity continues to be a critical issue for many Alberta municipalities. For years, many communities across the province have taken it upon themselves to try to bridge the so-called ‘digital divide.’ At our recent 2021 Convention, the Alberta Municipalities Board presented a resolution advocating for the Government of Alberta to develop a Provincial Broadband Strategy. It passed with overwhelming membership support.

The Solving Municipal Broadband series of articles seeks to improve members’ collective knowledge on this critical issue by showcasing the efforts occurring at municipal levels of government. This is the second of three articles in the series.

Prior to commissioning its Community Broadband project in the spring of 2020, Strathcona County (‘the County’) was already actively trying to improve the accessibility and performance of available rural internet services, through its feasibility study and Rural Internet Access Program to participating in the development of the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board’s (EMRB) broadband study.

In addition to being the first comprehensive regional study of the state of connectivity in the region, the EMRB report affirmed “that poor [internet] connectivity is a barrier to growth impacting rural counties, towns and even cities in the region”.

Since getting the ‘go ahead’ from Council, Administration has been hard at work – establishing a steering committee, developing a Request For Proposal (RFP) to procure a future business partner(s), as well as creating a team to work full-time on this initiative through staff secondments.

Today, the organization is in midst of contract negotiations which it hopes to complete by early 2022 – but the road to getting here was no simple task.

To manage complexity, one of the first things the County did was scope and focus its efforts. Based on the outputs of its public engagement, the priority areas needing broadband coverage were its rural and industrial areas.

Next, it shifted its attention to identifying the type of business model that needed to be established. Recognizing this type of service is not traditionally within the scope of municipal operations, the County adopted a more ‘entrepreneurial mindset’ and explored 13 different models.

After determining a partnership or joint venture model (or combination of the two) would work best, it issued a Request For Information (RFI). The intent of the RFI was to not only identify companies operating in this space that would be willing to work with the County, but to prepare for its next step which was to issue a request for proposal (RFP).

In addition to hiring a consulting company to support the development of its RFP, Strathcona County also engaged outside legal counsel who brought the requisite expertise to properly navigate this space.

Next week, Part 3 of this series will detail some of the outcomes of the RFP process, in addition to some of the lessons that Strathcona County learned and guidance for municipalities seeking to embark on this journey for themselves.

For more information, contact danb [at] abmunis.ca (Dan Blackburn, Senior Director of Growth & Innovation, at Alberta Municipalities).