Council agrees to hire broadband consultant

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Town of Sundre residents and businesses within the municipality’s corporate limits will soon be given the opportunity to provide feedback regarding what direction the municipality should take in its effort to modernize access to the Internet.

After a detailed discussion during its April 10 meeting, Sundre council green-lit a roughly $52,000 expense to hire a reputable third party to determine the community’s appetite for such a venture as well as how to pursue it, and to then provide elected officials with an objective, non-biased statistical analysis outlining what a majority of people want ó or don’t want.

Deputy Mayor Chris Vardas chaired the meeting in Mayor Terry Leslie’s absence, and Coun. Verna McFadden was not present, leaving the fate of the motion up to councillors Paul Isaac, Cheri Funke, Nolan Blatchford, Myron Thompson and Vardas.

While some members of council mostly seem supportive of broadband itself, others needed to be convinced the $52,000 was justified when another tender had also been submitted for a much lower sum of about $12,000.

“The prices are quite different. Maybe just give us ó or for me, anyways ó a real understanding of that difference,” said Isaac.

“That, to me, is really what I need to know.”

Jonathan Allan, economic development officer, as well as Vic Pirie, director of finance and administration, outlined the reasons why staff recommended the more costly venture.

“It comes down to resources,” said Allan.

The company that submitted a lower bid is operated by a husband and wife who do not have access to the level of resources available to the other firm, which comes with a reputable track record as well as national accreditation for creating comprehensive statistical analyses, he said.

“We need to go with a company that has proven themselves time and again. Because what we are asking for is essentially the equivalent of a census. We are going to try to survey as close to 100 per cent of every premise possible.”

Isaac remained curious regarding why going “door to door” would cost so much.

“It’s not just going door to door, though,” replied Allan.

Getting all the feedback is just one part of the equation, “it’s the analysis that’s also just as important.”

Administration cannot be involved in the survey, which must be as objective and non-biased as possible. The company will, in an attempt to reduce costs, first try to reach people by public engagement sessions as well as an encrypted web survey that ensures each household can provide feedback only once. Then, phone calls will go out to any addresses that have not yet responded online, followed finally by personal visits to the door for any remaining residents or businesses that might have fallen through the cracks along the way, he said.

“That’s the kind of level of professionalism this company brings.”

Additionally, the time frame of about six weeks to complete the report “is another reason why we need to make sure it gets done professionally, but also expeditiously,” he said.

Isaac followed up to question whether neighbouring residents and businesses that are not right in Sundre will be part of the consultation process.

Linda Nelson, Sundre’s new chief administrative officer, said getting input from others in the immediate surrounding area is a great idea, but that the project’s scope is limited to the town’s municipal boundary. However, there could be a future discussion with Mountain View County to determine whether that council might be interested in getting involved, she said, adding that conversation could be part of the effort to develop an inter-municipal collaboration framework.

Allan also agreed input from nearby businesses and residents would be valuable, but “currently, there are no taxes being put toward this by Mountain View County.”

Besides, extending broadband infrastructure outside of Sundre’s corporate limit is not part of the capital plan, he added.

Also, should Sundre residents choose to pursue a publicly-owned broadband service, they could potentially be on the hook should the venture not pan out, said Pirie.

“So we have to ensure that it’s the residents of the Town of Sundre that make the decision, and not the residents in Tall Timber or any other area outside of the town,” he said.

“It’s not to exclude them, but at this point in making the decision, the decision has to be based on the input we’re receiving from the residents of the Town of Sundre.”

Isaac agreed, but said knowing the income potential from neighbouring residents and neighbours would be valuable information to have.

Vardas, who has several times throughout the ongoing process expressed unwavering support for broadband, said council’s focus should be on Sundre residents but that a conversation could be initiated with the county.

“We can’t survey the county residents, but the county can,” he said.

As a side note, in the overall scope of a project worth well over $2 million, the cost to hire the company represents about two per cent of the overall budget, said Allan.

Funke, who motioned to approve administration’s recommended action, said since council is spending taxpayers’ money, professionally determining without bias what the public wants is imperative.

With only Blatchford opposed, the motion carried.

Once the market research is completed, a report compiling results from the community consultation will be presented to council in June, said Pirie.

Council hopes a clear trend will emerge, which in turn will facilitate its final decision regarding whether to proceed with establishing a community-owned service, allowing a private venture to assume the risk and the reward, or perhaps even simply to pull the plug.

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Simon Ducatel

Simon Ducatel is the editor of the Sundre Round Up and a longtime columnist for other publications of Mountain View Publishing.