Solving Municipal Broadband – Strathcona County (Part 3)

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 third and final article in our three-part series.

Strathcona County (‘the County’) is poised to take a giant leap in early 2022 after its broadband journey of nearly eight years. As it continues working through contracting and negotiations with its potential future business partner(s), the County cannot help but acknowledge the excitement surrounding this initiative.

The County eagerly anticipates the positive impact this work will have on its rural communities and industrial areas when the project is up and running. While the project team readily acknowledges there is still more to do, it has been able to reflect on how far it has come and identify some key lessons learned.

Here are some of the project team’s key ‘take-aways’:

  • Adopt an entrepreneurial mindset – be willing to take risks, continuously working towards ‘the next steps’ instead of trying to figure everything out in the initial planning phases, and thinking beyond the municipal level (i.e., if a municipality cannot generate the required return on investment on their own, then think bigger).
  • Satellite internet option viability – providers continue to have issues with supply, support, and installation.  While these services are an excellent solution for some customers, they are not without their challenges and may be more appropriate for less dense rural areas or those without obstructions such as trees, terrain, or buildings’.
  • Telecom’s Experience with Public Procurement – Internet Service Providers have not traditionally worked with municipalities through public procurement processes to address broader community needs. To ensure a successful procurement, municipalities need to set expectations, deliberately communicate the strict public sector procurement requirements, and state the timing of the overall process. 
  • Engage and solicit professional expertise – properly navigating this space requires a mixture of very specialized knowledge and technical expertise that a municipality likely does not have (the provincial government has provided financial support to fund consulting projects or related professional services; e.g., the CARES Program).
  • Have champions on both Administration & Council – in addition to ensuring the required levels of support and resources are provided, maintaining a level of accountability and oversight will make sure things get delivered over the life of the project (expect a project like this to take 2+ years).

The project team was pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest its market solicitation garnered from local companies and those outside of Canada. Capital investment firms and fund managers, view opportunities to invest in infrastructure as very stable and lucrative in the long run.

As Strathcona County moves forward with this project and arriving at a decision, it will be interesting to see how this influences their local market, and other municipalities as they pursue their own solutions.

We hope you found this series of articles informative and insightful, and we thank Strathcona County for participating. Please click here to read part 1 and part 2 of the series. For more information on this critical issue, contact DanB [at] (Dan Blackburn), Senior Director of Growth & Innovation, at Alberta Municipalities.