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

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.”

Telus did not respond to interview requests for this story.

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.”



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Sherwood Park

Sherwood Park is a large hamlet in Alberta, Canada within Strathcona County that is recognized as an urban service area.[7] It is located adjacent to the City of Edmonton’s eastern boundary,[8] generally south of Highway 16 (Yellowhead Trail), west of Highway 21 and north of Highway 630 (Wye Road).[9] Other portions of Sherwood Park extend beyond Yellowhead Trail and Wye Road, while Anthony Henday Drive (Highway 216) separates Refinery Row to the west from the balance of the hamlet to the east.[9]

Sherwood Park was established in 1955 on farmland of the Smeltzer family, east of Edmonton. With a population of 70,618 in 2016,[6] Sherwood Park has enough people to be Alberta’s seventh largest city, but technically retains the status of a hamlet. The Government of Alberta recognizes the Sherwood Park Urban Service Area as equivalent to a city.

History

Sherwood Park, originally named Campbelltown, was founded by John Hook Campbell and John Mitchell in 1953 when the Municipal District of Strathcona No. 83 approved their proposed development of a bedroom community east of Edmonton. The first homes within the community were marketed to the public in 1955. Canada Post intervened on the name of Campbelltown due to the existence of several other communities in Canada within the same name, so the community’s name was changed to Sherwood Park in 1956.
Geography

The Sherwood Park Urban Service Area is located in the Edmonton Capital Region along the western edge of central Strathcona County adjacent to the City of Edmonton.[8] The majority of the community is bound by Highway 16 (Yellowhead Highway) to the north, Highway 21 to the east, Highway 630 (Wye Road) to the south, and Anthony Henday Drive (Highway 216) to the west. The Refinery Row portion of Sherwood Park is located across Anthony Henday Drive to the west, between Sherwood Park Freeway and Highway 16. Numerous developments fronting the south side of Wye Road, including Wye Gardens, Wye Crossing, Salisbury Village and the Estates of Sherwood Park, are also within the community. Lands north of Highway 16 and south of Township Road 534/Oldman Creek between Range Road 232 (Sherwood Drive) to the west and Highway 21 to the east are also within the Sherwood Park urban service area.

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