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RipNet CEO Kingsley Grant (right) and CFO Eric Rothschild stand next to one of the company's wireless tower near Brockville, Ont. (DAVE CHAN/DAVE CHAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
RipNet CEO Kingsley Grant (right) and CFO Eric Rothschild stand next to one of the company's wireless tower near Brockville, Ont. (DAVE CHAN/DAVE CHAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Rural Canada loses as politics and business fail to get broadband down the last mile Add to ...

Some ideas, of course, work better than others. In Alberta, many rural communities were unable to take advantage of the SuperNet, because they lacked the cash - or enough local interest in better Internet service - to hook into it. As the Alberta government tries to figure out the SuperNet's pitfalls, big providers use it to illustrate their mantra that competitive companies are the only ones who know how to build networks.

Some broadband experts estimate that millions of dollars have been wasted as governments fund "overbuilds," where a provider is given funds to supply Internet service to an area that already has it - at times, putting immense pressure on independent local businesses, such as Mr. Grant's and Mr. Rothschild's RipNet.

Industry Minister Tony Clement has consulted widely on a digital economy strategy, which includes broadband, but the Harper government is involved in a public consultation of a different kind: Essentially, how to slay a $55-billion federal deficit without driving itself out of office. "It's going to be hard to put a lot of money into this," said Michael Hennessy, Telus's senior vice-president for regulatory affairs. "[Finance Minister] Jim Flaherty's probably not going, 'Hey Tony, here's a couple of billion dollars.'"

Elsewhere, bold pronouncements have been the norm: Australia is spending more than $40-billion for a vast fibre-optic network. In late October, the United Kingdom announced more than $850-million for a national broadband rollout that would include rural areas.

In an interview, Mr. Clement said budgetary constraints are forcing him to rely more on the private sector and collaboration among levels of government to ensure high-speed Internet access. "But there's some areas of the country where the private sector won't be there for 20 years. And that's where we've got to have a dialogue with the regulator, or make our own decisions."

One flourishing Canadian strategy already exists in British Columbia. The province, one of the most successful in bridging the digital divide, began asking for input from its rural communities nearly a decade ago. Network BC was born and 366 communities stepped forward, eager to play a role in providing Internet service.

Network BC struck deals with the private sector to create a vast network of digital pipes, with bandwidth set aside at a discount for small Internet companies. It also doled out small amounts of cash, sometimes as little as $10,000, to small companies or community-run co-ops to build the "last mile" from a local hub to each household, avoiding the Alberta SuperNet's problem.

This year, the program will provide up to $1.5-million to push broadband service further into unconnected areas, with grants of up to $50,000 available for last mile infrastructure. The impact of this strategy - small, but carefully allocated funding - has been impressive. Of the 366 communities that originally stepped forward, 362 now have broadband service.



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