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By Tim Jones

Regina- The president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities wants to make sure SaskTel can expand its 4G LTE wireless system to better serve rural customers across Saskatchewan.


SARM president David Marit will ask the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to restrict private companies’ ability to buy wireless spectrum if they have no intention of using it for rural communities. At meetings in Regina with the CRTC this month, Marit will ask the commission to introduce a “use it or lose it,” policy. He said that companies should be penalized with the forfeiture of their unused wireless spectrum, should they do nothing with it for an extended period of time.


The issue arose at the SARM annual convention in March when SaskTel announced plans for expanding the quality and coverage of its rural internet services, but cautioned that 4G LTE expansion was dependent on being able to purchase more capacity at what is known as a 700 MHz wireless spectrum auction that is to be held in November.


Tara Thibeau, manager of communications at SaskTel, said "700 MHz is ideal for delivering high speed wireless to rural areas because lower frequencies have greater range and penetration than higher frequencies." This allows Sask Tel to provide greater coverage with fewer towers.


The problem is that at the auction, some private companies may bid on the spectrum, but never use it for rural coverage.  Although he supports the free market principles behind the auctions of wireless spectrum in Canada, Marit proposes that the CRTC set aside 20 per cent of the 700 MHz spectrum to be designated for rural use.


Private telecoms present a conundrum for Marit. “We are very fortunate in this province to have a provider (in SaskTel) that looks at rural just like they do anything else. We do have the private telecoms in this province - the Teluses and the Bells of the world. But they are not in rural. They won’t go to rural because of the numbers and what it costs them to set up. They just won’t go there,” he said.


Marit would like to see private telecoms set up shop in rural communities but, as it stands, a situation where SaskTel does not succeed in its bid presents a threat to rural economies throughout the province, he noted.  Marit plans to continue to raise his concerns not only with the CRTC but also any MPs or MLAs who will listen.


Marit also notes that there may be ways the province can help support SaskTel financially in its attempts to improve rural internet infrastructure. There have been precedents for such actions. In 2009 the Saskatchewan government infused $42.2 million into SaskTel’s $220 million Rural Infrastructure Program.


“I think SaskTel is doing everything they can do in the realms of their allocations,” Marit said. Taking into account the provincial government’s growth strategy  and where Premier Brad Wall has indicated the government wants the province to be in 2020, especially when it comes to technology, Marit said “I would hope the province would recognize that and support the crown utility somewhat financially in looking at new (internet) technologies.”


Highlights from SaskTel’s new rural internet strategy include:

  • A $57 million investment, beginning in 2013 and running until 2020, that will be put into upgrading its existing rural internet infrastructure. They will be adding fibre optic lines to accommodate rural growth and increase system capacity and stability.
  • SaskTel’s investment includes a new fibre optic backbone reaching into northeastern Saskatchewan.
  • 200 DSL enabled communities will see an upgrade in their fixed internet infrastructure allowing for greater speeds. Communities with a 1.5 Mbps (Megabytes per second) connection will see their speed increased to 5 Mbps. Communities with 5 Mbps service will see their speeds doubled to 10 Mbps.
  • A $10.7 million investment to existing 4G cellular infrastructure, that will see 31 new towers built and 37 network capacity enhancements.


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.