SaskTel bringing broadband to all of Saskatchewan

In three years no corner of Saskatchewan will be untouched by high-speed Internet coverage under an ambitious government-funded plan.

SaskTel, the provincially-owned phone utility is getting $90 million of the $129 million cost to extend broadband coverage to every business and home, the government said Wednesday.

In doing so the basic rural backbone infrastructure speed will jump to 5 Mbps from 1.5 Mbps. That will bring these communities at least closer to the 10 Mbps download speeds residents in the province’s 10 major cities can get.

In addition, cellular coverage will be extended to 98 per cent of the 651,000 sq. km. province.

The move was immediately praised by telecommunications consultant Iain Grant of the SeaBoard Group, who has long complained about how slow governments and carriers are moving to help spread broadband access to the far corners of the country.

At a time when governments around the world are preparing to spend big to blunt the current recession, Grant said Wednesday, money needs to be going to more than bridges and roads. So Saskatchewan’s move is “a giant step forward” for infrastructure spending, he said.

“Saskatchewan deserves kudos for their vision.”

SaskTel CEO Robert Watson said in a release that the funding “will allow us to continue to lead the way in Canada in delivering high speed Internet to rural and northern communities.”

The province is already the most connected jurisdiction in the country with some 89 per cent of the population of one million able to get either dial-up or broadband Internet access. Alberta is among the leaders thanks to its financial support for the SuperNet project linking the provinces’ 429 communities to the Internet. Telus and Shaw Communications look after last-mile link-ups to homes and businesses.

Meanwhile the private Inukshuk co-operative between Bell Canada and Rogers Communications is slowly adding wireless broadband coverage to small communities across the country. However, there are significant gaps. Inukshuk is only offered where the partners believe it will pay for itself.

With the federal government preparing a recession spending package “one hopes that Ottawa is paying attention” to Saskatchewan’s move, Grant added, “because there’s a national lesson here, too. When we’re looking at infrastructure spend, there’s more to life than concrete. More abstract investments such as in a national broadband initiative speaks to education, it speaks to training, it speaks to recreation and culture, it speaks to empowerment. And those, too, are worthy investments.”

The Saskatchewan goal of extending broadband to all areas was not unexpected – it was promised last month in the throne speech, although no dollars were mentioned. Also, it was looked at as a five-year plan.

The throne speech also said the government is in the middle of creating a Web-based gateway to make it easier to start or expand a business in the province.

Of the $129 million to be spent

-$30 million will pay for upgrading the rural backbone that connects 187 communities to 5Mbps from 1.2 Mbps;

-$41.5 million will pay to do the same for the CommunityNet network linking 256 towns and villages to the Internet. In addition, it will also pay to extend coverage to another 90 communities;

-for the roughly 14 per cent of the population that isn’t covered by landlines, $9.4 million will be spent to give them access to broadband wireless or satellite. SaskTel spokesman Michelle Englot said these will largely be communities with populations of less than 100;

-to extend cellular coverage, $48 million will pay for 50 new cell towers.

In addition, the province will apply to the federal Industry and Northern Affairs department for $15.3 million to pay to extend high speed Internet and cellular coverage to 29 First Nation communities. That work, however, is contingent on getting the grants.

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