Businesses in rural Alberta are ready to move into the digital economy, but good broadband and talent are both hard to find.
Almost half of businesses surveyed in rural Alberta have a digital adoption strategy or are putting one in place, according to a report from the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC).
“What I did think was interesting from the Alberta study was the willingness of companies to move into the space,” said Alexandra Cutean, chief research officer with ICTC.
“There does seem to be some type of understanding that this is important, and it’s something that companies do value and want to invest in.”
The number of people employed by Alberta’s digital economy has grown nearly 30 per cent since before the pandemic, about three times more than the general economy. Due to the “digital by default” mentality caused by the pandemic, rural businesses said they transitioned to remote work, e-commerce, AI, and cloud technologies that otherwise would have taken years to adopt.
Rural Alberta is home to several clean-tech and agri-food companies, but the digital economy boom has largely happened in Edmonton and Calgary.
“There are lots of reasons for the digital divide, including lack of training opportunities, infrastructural challenges like broadband and quality internet access, and cost of internet, for example,” Cutean said.
The report described a cycle where the lack of teachers and declining student populations make it more difficult to deliver digital skills training locally, which in turn drives teachers and potential employees to urban centres where the training is available.
To develop their employees’ technology skills, nearly three quarters of businesses do in-house training, and some have formed partnerships with post-secondary institutions like Olds College.
“These partnerships were, I would say, a little bit more ad hoc based, where the program maybe wasn’t there on a continuous basis, but … was seen as something valuable to deal with the fact that there isn’t a lot of options for digital skills training within those regions,” Cutean said.
“Obviously, you can come to the college itself [and] take courses, but there are other things like micro-credentials or continued education as well,” said Todd Ormann, vice-president of development at Olds College.
“We have our own set of courses, which you can take online, or there’s other pieces where we can actually create the course,” he said. “That can be for a community, it can be for a business, but that’s what our con-ed department would do.”
Because rural youth who move to cities in search of skills training often never return, “building those partnerships with local institutions was seen as a way to not only attract people to work for companies in rural Alberta, but potentially even retain them over long periods of time,” Cutean said.
Trouble finding skilled workers is a main barrier preventing businesses from adopting technology, but this labour shortage is also driving innovation in interesting ways.
Where businesses can’t hire appropriate staff, they are increasingly automating tasks like inventory management, administrative services, and distribution. A third of companies said they had automated processes in response to digital trends.
While a lot of employers talk about skills-based hiring, those in urban centres, with a larger talent pool to pick from, still gravitate towards traditional post-secondary credentials, Cutean said.
“What we saw with the rural communities is because there is a smaller pool of candidates to pick from, they did emphasize that skills piece much more than the actual certification or credential,” she said.
“That was interesting to see, skills-based hiring actually being utilized in real life versus just in theory. So, I think that’s an interesting opportunity for rural Alberta.”
The biggest hurdle to rural Alberta’s digital economy is inadequate broadband infrastructure, with half of respondents saying it held back their adoption of new technology.
According to the Government of Alberta, 67 per cent of rural Albertans and 80 per cent of Indigenous communities don’t have access to reliable high-speed internet. While Edmonton boasted download speeds of 1.5 gigabits per second in 2022, communities an hour east of the city reported maximum speeds of only 25 megabits per second.
The estimated cost of bringing broadband to rural and remote areas is $1 billion, and the province hopes to connect all Albertans to high-speed internet by 2027.
“The provincial government has allocated $390 million to this goal, the largest budget for broadband connectivity in decades. We’ve so far announced projects that connect 15,000 additional rural and Indigenous households to high-speed internet, and construction has begun in more than 26 communities. We look forward to continuing this work and meeting our targets,” said Justin Brattinga, press secretary for Technology and Innovation Minister Nate Glubish.
A progress tracker for the broadband strategy on the Government of Alberta website indicates the last milestone reached was the announcement of the initial round of projects in 2022, though construction on the second round of projects was slated to start this summer.
Brattinga said the government remains committed to the goal of full connectivity by 2027, and “construction is already being undertaken on numerous projects.”
Though the goal is equal internet access in rural areas, how it’s delivered could look quite different than in urban centres.
“You cannot take the model we have in an urban environment and expect that it’s going to work in a rural environment,” Ormann said.
“We have partners like TELUS and SaskTel where we work with them to test out solutions in a rural environment. I have yet to see an economic model that is going to put up a half-a-million-dollar tower where you have nothing but rattlesnakes and antelope,” he said.
To help fill this gap, researchers at Olds College are testing ways to strengthen wireless signals and use satellite internet services to set up private networks that can connect nearby equipment.
Ormann also said the way Canada manages radiofrequency spectrum biases broadband development towards urban areas.
“If you are going to put anything out in the marketplace, you need a spectrum licence. When you go and buy spectrum, you’re going to put it wherever it’s going to be the most profitable; it’s not going to be rural Alberta, or rural Saskatchewan, or rural Manitoba,” he said.
Some telecommunications companies have lobbied for a price differentiation between spectrum pricing for urban and rural markets, “where it’s just honestly tougher to make a buck,” he said.
By Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Oct 27, 2023 at 11:52