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Mapping the future of rural broadband

By the final session of a three-day gathering focused on the potential benefits of broadband Internet service in rural communities, walls, tables and flipcharts within a small meeting room at Olds College were covered in dozens of ideas.
Maria Debrujin leads a brainstorming session during the last day of the Community Planning Circle discussion on the effective use of broadband in rural areas held at Olds
Maria Debrujin leads a brainstorming session during the last day of the Community Planning Circle discussion on the effective use of broadband in rural areas held at Olds College on April 12. CLICK ON PHOTO FOR LARGER IMAGE

By the final session of a three-day gathering focused on the potential benefits of broadband Internet service in rural communities, walls, tables and flipcharts within a small meeting room at Olds College were covered in dozens of ideas.
On one colourful wall display topped with the question "What possibilities does high-speed Internet present?" suggestions such as online classes in the community, making Olds a centre for the testing of new technology, online agriculture auctions and telecommuting were scrawled under headings including Business, Innovation and Education.
These were just some of the ideas 15 people from the Olds area researched and discussed during a "citizen planning circle" formed to look at the question of how residents in the community can make the best use of high-capacity broadband Internet to support economic, social and cultural development.
Participants had the chance to listen to expert presentations on broadband before discussing broadband’s potential community benefits, some of the barriers to service and ways to overcome those barriers.
The Centre for Public Involvement (CPI), Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (AARD), the Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development and the Town of Olds worked together to host the circle, which met on April 4, 5 and 12.
The people who took part in the circle were selected after invitations were sent out to the community through mail and email.
Erin Schultz, an 18-year-old Olds High School student who lives in the rural area outside Olds, said she wanted to participate since her family is looking at the possibility of signing up for O-NET, Olds’ community-owned fibre-to-the-premise Internet service provider.
O-NET has faced challenges in installing infrastructure and signing up customers.
"So I thought it’d be a great idea to come and figure out what it is and how we can fix it," Schultz said.
She added part of the discussion during the planning circle centred on how to provide universal accessibility to reliable high-speed Internet.
If every community had such service in place, Schultz said, it would lead to consistent quality in areas such as video conferencing, which is important to her since much of her extended family lives in Manitoba.
Currently, conversations over Internet communication tools are spotty, she added.
"Lots of the time we don’t know if it’s us or we don’t know if it’s them, it doesn’t work properly and it’s not the Skype or the FaceTime, it’s the Internet cutting out."
Jonathan Koch, 40, said marketing and communications were also a big topic of discussion during the planning circle and participants explored ways O-NET could improve on letting the community know about the value of its service.
He added the group, along with O-NET representatives present at the discussion, agreed there are "some gaps in communication."
Participants, Koch said, looked at how to share the message of why it’s important for Olds residents and businesses to embrace the service both as customers and through tax dollars.
"Part of this discussion is really talking about what kind of community you want Olds to be in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. And with broadband, the possibilities are endless. It’s kind of our pipeline to the future."
The benefits of having a reliable broadband system in place that were discussed included the potential for healthier lifestyles and improved health-care services.
"Just having infrastructure and technology in place to allow people to be at home and access health-care services, whether it be having a doctor’s consultation, aging at home, aging in place," Koch said. "Some discussion about using broadband as a tool for the attraction and retention and education of rural physicians."
As for how to overcome barriers to establishing broadband systems in rural areas, Koch said the planning circle looked at the importance of finding ways to convince communities to "trust the messenger."
"So just finding those ways into the community where a credible voice is speaking on behalf of the service, whether it’s O-NET or one of the other incumbent providers."
One solution, he added, would be for Olds College to play a role in educating students and residents about how technology can improve efficiency in areas such as agricultural production.
Wayne Smith, 68, said he came to the planning circle because he wanted to improve the process O-NET is using to increase its business in the community.
"I think we’ve come up with some ideas that can potentially improve the way it’s been implemented," he said. "Rather than salespeople coming door to door and trying to convince people to convert to O-NET, simply on the basis of cost-benefit analysis, that they should explain to the people that there is a long-term potential benefit to going with fibre."
He added many people in his peer group say "What’s in it for me?"
The discussion helped Smith answer that question.
"The answer is that the cost is comparable to what you would pay if you were changing service with anyone else. Once you have fibre to your door, it can be used for applications because you’ve already got the bandwidth. You may not be taking advantage of it today, but somebody will in the future for sure."
But Fiona Cavanagh, CPI’s executive director, said the planning circle was not just a marketing focus group for O-NET.
"O-NET is a critical piece of the context and story of broadband in Olds," she said. "But, we had a discussion at the (April 5) session, and as the Centre for Public Involvement, we’re the ones who designed the process, supported the development of the content. We have no vested interest at all in O-NET or things like that. So I think it’s really important that it’s a bigger exploration."
The CPI is a partnership between the City of Edmonton and University of Alberta that, according to its website, "provides leadership in understanding and applying innovative public involvement ideas, practices and technologies, for citizen participation and deliberation."
Cavanagh said participants were encouraged to put forward "deep and challenging questions" and she was impressed with how "citizens stepped up to volunteer their time and to participate and to try something kind of new and innovative."
A final report on the planning circle will come out in the near future and will include recommendations put forth by the group.
That report, Cavanagh said, will be presented to Olds council, the institute and AARD and will then be shared with the public.
She added the planning circle was also about measuring changes in the knowledge and opinions of participants and surveys were conducted at the beginning and end of the event to gauge those changes.
Funding for the planning circle came from AARD and the budget for the event was $35,000.
Patricia Macklin, a project coordinator with AARD, said her department funded the project since the provincial and federal governments are spending great sums of money to push broadband service into rural areas.
"I thought, well, OK, the next step is getting people to use it and see the wide possibilities of doing that," she said. "And the best way to do that is to have people discuss it."
She added Olds was chosen as a location for the event because it is "progressive" in the area of broadband.
As for the effectiveness of the planning circle, Macklin said looking at ways to make the best use of broadband in rural areas through a community discussion of this kind is an innovative way to brainstorm on issues of provincial importance.
"I think this is a model that any of the rural communities in rural Alberta can implement in looking at getting people involved and getting projects."
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