The Cariboo Regional District Board is considering the best way to have “essential” broadband and cellular coverage provided across the region, including asking the provincial government to step up to fund or build it.
The debate follows the release of a report by Tanex Engineering, which found the Cariboo-Chilcotin has “a large connectivity problem” that would cost an estimated $230 million to resolve. Although the Highway 97 corridor has decent broadband and cellular coverage, the report said, there are large tracts of highways without any cellular service.
“If we follow all of the recommendations that Tanex has laid out it is a chunk of change for sure,” said Maureen LeBourdais, Electoral Area F director and chair of the CRD’s broadband committee. “This is critical infrastructure so it should be public. The province has to be a key partner, it’s critical they be part of this. The CRD can’t do it on our own, financially or legislatively.”
Both the federal and governments say all Canadians should have access to this high-speed broadband as well as mobile wireless coverage where they live and work and along major road corridors. However, the report noted only 34 per cent of rural residents have broadband connectivity at the CRTC universal service objective of 50 megabytes per second download speed and 10 megabytes per second upload speed.
Although 100 Mile House, Quesnel and Williams Lake are fairly well served, there are significant gaps in both broadband and cellular coverage along highways 20, 24 and 97 and in remote areas off secondary roads such as Likely and Canim Lake South.
Regional districts across B.C. are grappling with how residents can access services, noting connectivity is not part of their mandate but is necessary in terms of both safety and emergency response as well as economic resilience.
“There’s clearly a societal benefit to all of our residents and to our region in terms of having wide access to connectivity cellular service broadband, there’s no doubt about it,” CRD CAO John MacLean said at a committee of the whole meeting last week. “Broadband and connectivity is in the same vein nowadays as police services, as transportation, as schools.
“The challenge we have is taxation and how do you develop those service levels and get taxation down to a level that makes sense?”
LeBourdais noted the CRD is not equipped to become an Internet Service Provider (ISP). She would like to form a standing committee or working group – involving the CRD as well forestry, tourism, agriculture members, First Nations, the provincial government and telecommunications companies – to look at the report recommendations and set priorities before taking that plan to the province to help bring it to fruition.
“We’ve got to have a sense of where we are going,” she said. “The provincial and federal governments have both set themselves a goal and we can help them do that but they have to help us.
“It’s holding the whole province back, it’s holding Canada back, if we don’t provide broadband, especially in rural areas.”
CRD Chair Margo Wagner said connectivity is key to newcomers in the area. Although many people have signed on to the Starlink beta test – herself included – she said the cost per household for broadband in extremely remote areas could be as high as $25,000.
“The first question they ask is ‘what is the connectivity like? That is a huge determining factor when they move into Cariboo-Chilcotin area and whether they stay within the immediate fringe or in town,” she said.
Electoral Area E director Angie Delainey agreed. “COVID has changed the landscape of how people are going to work in the future,” she said. “I believe where they can, there will still be home offices set up and people will continue to work from their homes. It’s an essential service. If you’re looking at moving from one area to another you will need broadband.”