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By Tim Jones

Regina-SaskTel is set to unveil its rural telecommunications strategy at the 2013 Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities annual convention, which runs March 11th to March 14th in Saskatoon. Details of the plan are scarce as SaskTel is holding its cards close to its chest until its presentation to SARM on March 12th. In an e-mail statement Michelle Englot, SaskTel’s director of external communications and external affairs, reiterated the company’s commitment to enhancing rural broadband services throughout Saskatchewan.


In 2008, the Government of Saskatchewan recognized that access to high speed internet was essential to growing Saskatchewan’s rural communities, pledging $129 million to developing the province’s rural internet infrastructure. However, five years later many of Saskatchewan’s smaller communities, while reporting progress on this front, still lag behind the larger urban centres in terms of overall speeds, prices, and mobile access to the internet.


Despite the progress being made in improving access to, and the speed of, the internet in rural Saskatchewan, urban centres are outpacing rural areas by leaps and bounds. Internet speeds are measured in bytes and scales in units of a thousand, with a kilobyte being approximately 1,000 bytes, and a megabyte being approximately 1,000 kilobytes. In a letter sent to long time Access Communications internet customers, the Regina-based telecom revealed that it is introducing a new service dubbed AccessHyperSpeed, which will offer Regina residents internet speeds of up to 100 mbps (megabytes per second). The new service will roll out to the other centres served by Access Communications in the coming months. This announcement comes hot on the heels of SaskTel’s initial deployment of the infiniNET fibre optic internet delivery system that will bring internet speeds of up to 250 mbps to Saskatchewan’s nine largest urban centers by 2017.


The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is Canada’s regulator governing the practices of telecoms operating in the country. These telecoms include internet, telephone, and wireless providers, as well as radio and television broadcasters. The CRTC has set the definition of high speed internet as any service providing speeds in excess of 128 kbps (kilobytes per second) download speed. However, with the development of a much more media rich internet and the prevalence of streaming video services the CRTC’s definition of high speed appears woefully out of date. A better definition of high speed internet services is the one the CRTC applies to broadband services. In Canada broadband is, by definition, those services providing a download speed of 1.5 mbps (megabytes per second) or greater.


Telecommunications have been the lifeblood of businesses since the advent of the telephone. The invention of the cellular phone was also a game changer. Today, with the explosive growth of the internet, and online purchasing, product research, and entertainment becoming a bigger piece of the consumer picture, access to high speed internet has become an essential selling point of communities throughout Saskatchewan.


SaskTel provides broadband services to many rural communities that are comparable both in price and function to those provided in the larger urban centers with prices ranging from $22.95 to $44.95 per month at speeds of 256 kbps to 5 mbps respectively. However, the crown corporation’s broadband service has a tendency to stop at a rural town’s borders, forcing rural consumers to go to a comparatively more expensive wireless service such as a mobile internet stick that connects to a cell phone tower, or to a satellite internet service.


Jeanine Holowatuik, community development officer for the town of Hudson Bay, reports that SaskTel’s service ends at the town’s boundary. “We do have high speed in town and in the rural areas we don’t, and we have quite a large R.M.” said Holowatuik . “Our area has suffered quite a bit when it comes to cell service as well,” leaving wireless internet very restricted throughout the rural municipality. However, Holowatuik said she believes that things are getting better in the area. “With the improvements to the network we actually get service to the area but I think it still needs improvement as we do have very limited services when it comes to living out of town (or) on  an acreage especially.” Holowatuik recognizes the importance of the internet to today’s rural communities both in terms of attracting business and new residents. “Internet is one of those things that almost come first before home phone lines these days,” Holowatuik said.


Shaunavon town administrator Jay Meyer relates a similar story. He is satisfied with service in the town proper but admits that the greater rural municipality is lacking in its levels of internet service. “That’s the problem, outside in the rural municipalities … you have to go basically to a satellite. Speaking of the golf course for instance, for us to get internet out at our golf course we’d have to go with some kind of satellite system or do some kind of a data stick,” Meyer said. The problem that continues to persist in these small towns is that many of the businesses that operate in the areas just outside of town have limited options when it comes to internet service.


An even more pressing issue for rural residents is the restrictive data caps that wireless and satellite providers impose on their networks. SaskTel’s wireless data plans, which offer 4G or 4G LTE service where available, provide speeds of up to 100 mbps under ideal circumstances, but come with limited data caps ranging from 500 megabytes to 8 gigabytes and with prices to match. The 8 gigabyte plan sits at $75 per month. Despite the high speed of these connections these data caps are hardly suitable for data-devouring internet applications like streaming video, which can quickly chew through these small amounts of data, potentially leaving consumers with significant overage charges. Streaming HD quality video over a popular service such as Netflix can use 2.8 gigabytes per hour.


Xplornet, which has partnered with SaskTel, provides internet service in areas where cell phone towers or ADSL lines simply are not feasible options due to a lack of population density in the case of cell towers or the distance limitations placed on ADSL lines. “We’ve been delivering satellite based broadband services since 2004/2005,” said Bill MacDonald, Xplornet’s vice president of business development. “At the end of last year we’ve launched 2 new satellites which are called high throughput satellites and those are our fourth generation satellites. They offer better performance, more affordable monthly recurring type fees and better speeds (than previous satellites).”


Prices vary by area but advertised plans on Xplornet’s website range from $54.95 per month for a 1.5 mbps connection to $84.99 per month for the company’s highest speed offering at 5 mbps. Cost of entry for rural residents to obtain satellite service is more expensive than that faced by their urban counterparts MacDonald admitted. This is due to the challenge presented by the distances involved in servicing many rural areas, with installers sometimes having to travel hundreds of kilometres to do an installation. However, he added “we’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars into these satellites to help bring down the monthly recurring cost and to bring broadband into the rural market.”


The lack of options faced by rural residents when selecting internet service providers is Canada wide and has become a problem for internet advocacy groups such as Vancouver based Open Media. Reilly Yeo, managing director of Open Media, likens internet access to a fundamental human right and is frustrated by the slow progress on bringing broadband internet to rural areas. “We definitely think the internet is a lifeline to democratic forms of participation in our society and our culture and our economy,” Yeo said. “One challenge has been that in trying to provide access to rural areas, governments have mostly worked with the large telecom providers that already monopolize internet service provisions across the country. So we haven’t seen initiatives to try and sponsor more community oriented broadband networks.”


Yeo says that a lack of competition in rural areas is stifling innovation and leads to a lower level of service and higher costs for smaller communities. “We think that internet access is best when Canadians have a lot of choice and when they have providers who are really interested in serving their communities.” In Saskatchewan there are only two major players providing broadband service to its rural communities: SaskTel and Xplornet. SaskTel provides more traditional ADSL broadband services as well as wireless internet, while Xplornet specializes in providing satellite based solutions.


Tim Jones is a long time freelance writer. His main interests lie in science and technology coverage. Jones is currently a student at the University of Regina’s School of Journalism and holds previous degrees in English and Philosophy.