Ambiguity and uncertainty in the last mile: Broadband adoption in rural Alberta

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  • Broadband technology has captured the attention of many stakeholders throughout the world and is recognized as a “nation building” infrastructure enabling the future economic prosperity and improved living standards for many communities. In 2005, the Alberta government completed a significant investment into the construction of a unique high-speed, high capacity fiber optic network connecting rural communities throughout the province. The network was the first of its kind in the world in terms of the advantages it represented for rural individuals to benefit from easy access to broadband. Paradoxically, as of 2008, Alberta was ranked last in Canada for rural broadband access. This research examines how ambiguity and uncertainty faced by industry decision-makers and broadband stakeholders has contributed to the state of rural broadband adoption. Through the application of Weick’s (1995) Sensemaking framework, the research identifies several areas of ambiguity and uncertainty relating to the question of rural broadband adoption. The primary data collection method used in this research was 4 semi-structured interviews which involved a total of 5 participants from various professional backgrounds. Other than participants being considered stakeholders of rural broadband in Alberta no other demographic considerations were made or deemed necessary. The main criteria for consideration to participate in this research study were a level of involvement with or participation in, the rural broadband environment in Alberta. Each selected participant was considered to have a significant stake, either personally or professionally, in the topic of rural broadband access and availability in rural Alberta. The method with which the research participants were identified as stakeholders of rural broadband was by either their direct attendance at, or being affiliated with an organization or individuals that attended, a Rural Broadband Access Round Table held in Calgary on March 28th, 2008. During the interviews the following themes of ambiguity and uncertainty emerged: • Currently, a sustainable business case for rural broadband does not exist. • The role of government is unclear to stakeholders. • The pace of technological obsolescence influences broadband participation. • Broadband currently plays a limited role in rural Alberta. • The expectations for broadband have changed little over time. Collectively, these themes represent what individual research participants were thinking in relation to broadband development in rural Alberta. The research findings discovered that self-fulfilling prophecies have created an environment of inertia surrounding rural broadband development in Alberta. Specifically, self-fulfilling prophecies have developed around the economics of the last mile business case, the role of the government in providing rural broadband and the availability or need for licensed spectrum for providing last mile connectivity. Rural communities must take a greater leadership role in broadband development by appointing community champions. One way to accomplish this is by providing assistance to rural communities in the form of funding for community champion identification and development. Direct government funding to community intermediaries that could liaise with community members and external stakeholders such as ISPs would help expedite rural broadband development. In addition, communities would benefit in a shift toward understanding broadband uses and away from the current focus on broadband access (i.e., physical access).

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    Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International