Amid calls for improved cell and internet coverage, the Thompson Nicola Regional District is eyeing grant funding to assess broadband gaps throughout the region.
TNRD director of community services Ron Storie said he will be bringing to the board in late 2019 or early 2020 an application for funding via Connecting British Columbia, a provincial program that helps pay for infrastructure to deliver high-speed internet to rural and remote areas.
Storie said the board earlier this year identified broadband as a priority.
Anecdotally, he said, rural services are lacking. Cities like Kamloops and Merritt are up to speed, whereas communities like Logan Lake, Pinantan, Clinton, Lytton, Paul Lake and Sun Peaks would benefit from improvements.
“The CRTC has said thou shalt have a 50 megabyte upload speed and 10 megabyte download speed by such and such a time, or that’s what people should have now,” Storie said.
“I think at the end of the day, that’s what the board has said — let’s find out who’s got what, let’s come up with a strategy of who the service providers are, find out who’s got what, who needs what — what is it? Is it for emergency purposes? Is it for home-based businesses? Is it for Netflix? — and then come up with a strategy.”
Calls for improvements can be heard throughout the region.
BC Cattleman’s Association general manager Kevin Boon said the issue is widespread in B.C., worsening the further one gets from major centres.
Ranchers arguably feel it the most in rural, sparsely-populated areas. Boon detailed a situation wherein infrastructure is not keeping up with increasing digital demands.
With more and more paperwork moving online, he said lengthy processes like water licensing applications are made longer when available only by dial-up.
“To comply, they have to make some other services available,” Boon said. “Or we need better internet connections in these areas.”
The mayors of Clearwater and Vavenby have also called for internet improvements as ways to diversify their economies at a time when the forestry sector has taken a hit.
Meanwhile, TNRD director Mel Rothenburger said in his electoral area (rivers and the peaks) cell phone coverage is at issue, impacting safety and commerce for about 1,000 residents.
He has brought it up at the TNRD on numerous occasions, as members of the Heffley Lake Community Association continue to lobby for improvements.
Association vice-president Jim Davies said the group has invested a significant amount of time into the issue in recent years and he doesn’t understand why the road to Big White in Kelowna has cell coverage, while the road to Sun Peaks near Kamloops has “very limited to no cell coverage on the road.”
Letters of support provided to KTW from various interest groups date back to 2016.
Tk’emlups rural RCMP detachment has said increased cell coverage would benefit policing, with calls for service inaccessible via police car computer systems in places without cell coverage. Instead, rural police rely on old school radio.
Sun Peaks residents and visitors know dead zones on their way up to the ski hill, which can be dicey when driving amidst winter road conditions. Sun Peaks mayor Al Raine penned a letter to Telus in 2017 requesting service, estimating 500,000 trips are made annually between Sun Peaks and Heffley Creek.
“With this volume of travel, there is obviously a large demand for cell service,” Raine wrote.
Short-range improvements have been made. Cell service via Telus, Koodo or other Telus Mobility providers is accessible to the Heffley Lake campground and some properties on Mill Bay and Heffley Lake Road.
However, not all residents can access the service and during a summer meeting on the issue, the association said it will continue pushing for cell coverage for as many residents as possible in the area.
Rothenburger said he has spoken multiple times with Telus.
At its core, the issue comes down to cost. A lack of business case provides minimal incentive to make improvements.
A meeting with the minister of citizens services last year during the Union of BC Municipalities conference was “encouraging,” Rothenburger said, though he said nothing has since been done.
It is unclear whether or not a TNRD gap analysis would include cell phone coverage, as Storie could not say at the time when he spoke with KTW.