“No ‘quick-fix’ to Burns Lake’s connectivity problems”

“There is no ‘quick-fix’ to this area’s connectivity problems,” says RDBN Director for Burns Lake rural area

Access to reliable internet and the lack of a robust cell phone service in some areas, has been a longstanding issue in the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako (RDBN). To understand and solve those issues, the RDBN had commissioned two studies, latest of which has indicated the need for fixing the existing infrastructure and filling the current gaps in the internet service.

In July 2019, a study was commissioned by RDBN to TANex Engineering Corporation, to refine the recommendations and outline steps to meet the RDBN’s goal of providing internet service to 90 per cent of the regional district, at the new Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications (CRTC) standard of 50Mbps download and 10Mbps upload (“50/10”).

“Initially, the regional board looked at developing its own infrastructure to promote connectivity in the region. This included construction of a fibre optic ‘backbone’ that would serve as the region’s connectivity highway. However, the costs of this option were considered too high,” said Michael Riis-Christianson, director of Electoral Area B (Burns Lake rural). The TANex study in turn suggested that instead of a fibre optic backbone, the area would be better served if the regional district worked with existing service providers for improved connectivity to under-served regions and helped fill the gaps by strengthening the infrastructure so as to extend service to areas that are without any service.

The committee has chosen priority areas for the year 2020, “Southside—Francois Lake, up by Fort St. James and near Houston in the Buck Flats region, are the top three priorities and we are constantly lobbying, discussing, planning to make sure we are basically shelf ready for all the upcoming grant applications for those three main areas,” said Curtis Helgesen, the Chief Administrative Officer for RDBN. The regional district board has also established a broadband committee to implement the strategy recommended by the study.

At present, the district has a wide range of connectivity with some areas that have it really good, including access to fibre optics network and comparable speeds to the federal mandates for uploads and downloads. However, some other areas like Southside, or near Fort St. James have little to no internet connectivity. In fact, Riis-Christianson informed that those areas don’t even have cell service. He also suggested that some residents in the Electoral Area B, who have access to internet, only have a 5/1 upload/download speed, which is way lower than the mandate.

“Improving connectivity in areas south of Burns Lake is considered a priority. As the wildfires of 2018 showed, lack of connectivity in the rural areas south of Burns Lake—particularly on the Southside—is a significant problem. Not only is it a barrier to economic growth, but it represents a significant health and safety issue,” added Riis-Christianson.

The district has not yet received any funding that the provincial and federal governments have established to improve connectivity. However, Helgesen assured that the RDBN is constantly in touch with various service providers and helping them with grant applications, providing them with letters of support, in order to make these grants possible for the area

“To move our priority projects forward, we need is (a) to find an existing service provider willing to work with us to improve connectivity in under-served areas, even if it means accepting lower profit margins, and (b) grant funding that will cover most of the costs of installing the infrastructure needed to achieve this,” admitted Riis-Christianson, who also said that having just an internet connection is not enough. In his opinion, what Canadians need is access to internet with adequate bandwidth which has been a major cause of concern in the past couple of months.

Riis-Christianson gave a personal example of his internet connectivity where before March 14, the upload/download speed for his internet connection was about 9/4—well below the federally mandated standard, “but good enough to stream Netflix and access government programs.” He also said that the current network traffic ‘congestion’ has dramatically reduced that service level. “During last week’s board meeting, my measured speeds were at times below 5/1. This is unacceptable,” he added.

The board has realized the importance of connectivity in today’s world, especially during the current pandemic. Several government programs and supports, including the Government of Canada and B.C.’s response to COVID-19, are for the most part internet based. Not having good connectivity makes accessing these services extremely difficult. To that effect, Riis-Christianson assured that the board recognized the importance of improving connectivity and was working towards moving things quickly for the priority projects. However, he also suggested that the local residents could be invaluable in speeding up this process and in assessing the needs first-hand.

“Local residents can help us in this regard by completing surveys and the speed test on the regional district website; if necessary, they can contact us by telephone to communicate the problems they are facing in terms of connectivity. And finally, if they have an existing service provider, they need to tell that service provider that they expect better connectivity for their hard-earned dollars,” he suggested.

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