Still hot off the press, the Regional District of Mount Waddington’s new, comprehensive telecommunications policy was rolled out last week at the annual Union of British Columbia Municipalities Conference in Victoria.
The document, created by the District’s economic development office and approved by the Board of Directors, calls for the Province, the federal government and telecom companies to ensure rural communities like those on North Vancouver Island are not left behind as internet and cellular technology is increased and expanded in other parts of the country.
“We’ve been developing it since July, to have a little more sophisticated line on the subject,” said Neil Smith, the RDMW’s economic development manager. “It was basically to have a policy so our directors and municipal leaders would have something to take to UBCM.”
And that’s just what they did, presenting the policy to Citizens’ Services and Open Government Minister Ben Stewart last week while asking for the government’s assistance in ensuring Telus Communications upholds its obligations to rural communities under its infrastructure and service contract with B.C.
“(Stewart) was receptive, because we already have an agreement with Telus,” said Greg Fletcher, RDMW administrator. “The policy is an example of a situation where we could provide the minister a completed work, rather than asking him to help draft policy.
“We’re at the implementation stage, not the paperwork stage.”
The RD believes the provincial government has leverage over Telus due to its long-term, exclusive contract with Telus to provide infrastructure and service across the province. Telus did provide language in the contract indicating it was committed to providing access to rural areas, but a close reading reveals a decided lack of specifics.
“There was absolutely nothing in there to benefit rural service,” said Smith. “When we got looking at it, we realized we’d been had.”
Early this summer, the RDMW board of directors did extract a commitment from Telus to extend its fibre-optic line from Sayward to Woss by next year, and complete the section from Woss to Port McNeill within two years.
“The only place Telus didn’t set a timeline was for Port Alice,” said Fletcher.
Port Alice has its own section in the RDMW policy, thanks to input from management at Neucel Specialty Cellulose mill, the community’s largest employer. The company argues its technical isolation harms it competitiveness and ability to attract employees to the community.
“A lack of broadband access is seriously hurting both the town and Neucel,” Louise Nichol, manager of human resources at Neucel, is quoted in the policy publication. “Cell phones don’t have access in large areas of this region and download speeds are intolerable and costly.”
The fibre-optic line proposed by Telus would connect with an existing line between Port McNeill and Port Hardy, currently served by a lower-speed microwave system.
“That McNeill to Hardy line is in there, but it’s isolated,” said Fletcher. “The key is to get that fibre-optic link on the ground, and that would improve broadband access to the whole North Island.”
Those not connected directly to the new line would still benefit — to a degree — because its introduction would free up broadband availability.
But the RDMW hopes to keep the pressure on governments and business to close vast gaps in both broadband access and cellular coverage throughout the regional district. And the policy is not limited to the efforts of Telus. Rogers Communications has already installed one cellular tower in Port Hardy and will soon construct another in Port McNeill.
“Our goals are fairly clear, I think,” said Fletcher. “We want to improve the service in whatever way possible, whoever the carrier might be.”