Original Published 08:52 May 25, 2022

By Tom Summer, Local Journalism Initiative

Peace River Regional District directors say they’re feeling the pressure from residents, the province, and federal government to improve rural internet and cell phone coverage, following discussions on establishing a connectivity service for some area residents.

At their May 12 meeting, the majority of the board voted against a recommendation for the service function in electoral areas C and D, which would have been subject to a public referendum before implementation.  

It would have seen the PRRD partner with internet service providers to apply for provincial and federal grant funding, in addition to providing aid through gas taxes or provincial Peace River Agreements funds, to create broadband internet and mobility infrastructure.  

Directors expressed a mix of concerns over how internet access has been rolled out in the region, citing disparities and gaps in telecom service across the North and South Peace. 

Leonard Hiebert, electoral director for Area D, said he believes the recommendation for the two electoral areas was suggested because of a previous lack of interest for a region-wide initiative.

“I’ve been talking to the constituents about not having connectivity for four years now, and the frustrations that are coming with it,” he said.

Tumbler Ridge Mayor Keith Bertrand said he would prefer to see a regional service function and connectivity strategy, but called the recommendation a ‘piecemeal’ approach. 

“My disappointment is that we’re not looking for a service function throughout the regional district as a whole,” he said. “Breaking it up into the two electoral areas in this sense, puts us at not really an unfair advantage, just unco-ordinated.”   

Bertrand says Tumbler Ridge has already experienced the consequences of being a remote community, with the town essentially going offline and being forced to rely on landlines after a beaver chewed through its only telecom cable.  

“One week down – no cell phones, everybody had to figure out landlines. It was chaos,” said Bertrand. “So that’s my fear of just identifying two areas, we’re piece-mealing. We’re looking for last mile connections when they’re not reliable.”   

Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman preferred a regional initiative and acknowledged the district has been put in a difficult situation by the United Nation’s declaration that internet access is a human right.

“This has come to local government in a truly significant way when it truly should not be because this is not our mandated area. So here we are learning how to be IT fibre technicians,” she said. “My question is, as this is not a co-ordinated regional approach that does not benefit the entire regional district, are the two areas willing to hold harmless the remainder of the jurisdictions on any liabilities?”   

“There could be liabilities, whether they’re financial or legal, whatever the case might be. If the regional district approves this via a vote, we are all liable,” she said.

Dan Rose, electoral director for Area E, agreed with both Bertrand and Ackerman, but said he’d like to know more about what options are out there for his residents.  

“I understand the need for a function, but when we started down the path of connectivity we were talking about inclusivity and trying to come up with a regional strategy,” he said. “And understanding that this has been fairly slow-moving, and there may be some opportunities out there that we might be afraid of missing, I would rather see it on a regional basis as well.”  

Hudson’s Hope Mayor Dave Heiberg said the region would benefit from a regional approach to implementing and upgrading telecommunications, particularly for groups like search and rescue, who often hit dead zones in rural areas.    

“All the people in our municipalities travel outside our municipalities, they all need cell services outside our municipalities, and I think if it’s presented that way to the members of each of our municipalities, I think they’ll realize that,” he said. “And that’s where the service function, in my mind, on a regional basis would come into play.” 

Chair Brad Sperling said he already knows of fibre optic installations that could be expanded in Area C and doesn’t want to hinder existing options for residents. But he was in favour of establishing a service function for Area D as his residents visit the area for work.     

“Although I agree it needs to be regional, I don’t plan on giving up on the regional aspect of it. A lot of my residents work out in those regions, so cell coverage and internet is important out there,” he said.

This item reprinted with permission from Alaska Highway News, Fort St. John, British Columbia