B.C. high-speed investment aimed at ‘lifestyle immigrants’

Rural B.C. will become more attractive to “lifestyle immigrants,” now that more residents of small communities will soon have access to high-speed Internet, according to local officials.

“Lifestyle immigrants” are professionals moving from elsewhere in Canada or the world to take advantage of the province’s relaxed, outdoors-oriented way of living. But given the importance of the Internet to many professionals, they were effectively shut out of moving to those parts of the province without high-speed access.

Now that “digital divide” is closer to being bridged. NetworkBC, a B.C. government agency, announced that 25 rural communities would receive grants of up to $40,000 each to pay for the “last mile” of high-speed connections.

“The provincial plan is establishing very high speed, low-cost connections in the communities,” according to John Webb, the director for community and external initiatives for B.C.’s Chief information office.

The payments, called Community Networking Infrastructure Grants, will be a directed at lifestyle immigrants, some of whom are telecommuting for Fortune 500 companies, but are based in their small-town B.C. homes.

“We’ve got lots of examples from all over the province of people working as consultants or doing web design,” Webb said in an interview. “But you have to have broadband to do it.”

Thanks to an April, 2005 agreement with Telus, the telecommunications company will provide 119 rural communities with high-speed access by the end of 2006. Telus is spending $110 million on the fibre-optic connections.

However, there remained the problem of connecting remote homes and businesses to the communities’ points of presence.

Because of the low population density, it made no business sense for telecommunications companies to make the last-mile connections on their own.

The Network B.C. announcement is designed to solve that.

“These people are way at the end of the road,” Webb said of the potential rural broadband users.

He added that once a separate project to provide high-speed access to all First Nations communities is completed, about 92 percent of B.C. residents will have broadband access.

Webb said that it is expected that B.C. and Alberta will receive an estimated $120 million from the $650 million that the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission last month ordered telecommunications companies to use to expand rural broadband access and to boost telecommunications services for those with disabilities.

Bob Allen is the founder and president of ABC Communications Ltd., the largest provider in northern B.C. of telecommunications products and services.

He said in an interview that there is a growing demand for both VoIP and downloading video in rural parts of the province.

“The ability to carry video and voice is very important to these communities,” Allen said.

Kathryn Seeley, Telus’ director of public sector marketing, said the rural connections could not have been made without the government’s financial support.

“The grant is pivotal in enabling the regional communities to establish last-mile connectivity and benefit from broadband,” Seeley said.

At a recent forum for rural advocates of high-speed connections, the enthusiasm was inspiring, she said.

“The passions that you can hear from the regional champions and the internet service providers in bringing connectivity to the communities is extremely real,” Seeley said.

So far, NetworkBC has awarded a total of $1 million to help connect 57 communities to broadband service.

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