District study takes aim at lack of broadband internet in region

The Regional District of Fraser-Fort George is partnering with Mackenzie, McBride and Valemount to conduct a study into the need for broadband internet service in the rural areas of the district.

Earlier this month the district board approved a $79,000 contract for TANEx Engineering Corp. to conduct the study, with the cost shared between the district and three rural municipalities.

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Mackenzie Mayor Joan Atkinson, who sits as a director on the district board, said lack of high-speed internet access adds to the disparity between rural and urban British Columbians.

"COVID has really highlighted this," Mackenzie Mayor Joan Atkinson said. "There were many people in Mackenzie who had to go to work to work, because they didn't have broadband in their homes."

The goal of the study is to inform a strategy is to improve internet service, which has limited economic activity and access to education and social services.

District chief administrative officer Jim Martin said TANEx was picked because it has done similar work for the Regional Districts of Kitimat-Stikine and Bulkley-Nechako, as well as the Columbia Basin Broadband Corporation.

"There is value in a cohesive approach," Martin said.

Director Pat Crook said trying to attend district board meetings remotely really brought home the challenges faced by rural residents.

"I couldn't even do a Zoom meeting," he said. "It's a serious issue in the smaller communities."

In addition to assessing the current need, the study will propose potential projects for the district and look at what the costs would be to expand service in the outlying areas.

Mayor Lyn Hall said the issue about high-speed internet access has been one the North Central Local Government Association has been tackling for years.

"This broadband issue has been around for a very long time. It's not just rural B.C., its rural every province in the nation," Hall said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has just highlighted the changes and new ways of delivering services that has already been happening, he said.

"We're going to see a new education delivery model for (Kindergarten to Grade 12) and post-secondary students," he said. "It's going to be online."

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