The provincial government has chosen Xplornet Communications to expand high-speed internet and cellular access to rural and northern communities.
Under the deal, approximately 125,000 more people will now have access to high-speed internet, Premier Brian Pallister said on Thursday morning.
As school, work and so many aspects of daily life moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic, Pallister said the last year underscored the need for improved internet access in rural Manitoba.
"Being connected and living virtually are no longer choices, they’re necessities. They’re a way of life in 2021," Pallister said.
"This virtual transformation has reinforced how important it is to be able to connect with one another and stay safe when doing so."
The agreement with Xplornet will bring broadband internet to approximately 30 First Nations and 270 rural and northern communities, according to a provincial press release. A total of 350 communities will also get better cellphone access, including Alonsa, Waywayseecappo First Nation, Glenella and Onanole in Westman.
"This pandemic has reinforced that the virtual reality many of us now take for granted remains a virtual dream for far too many of our fellow Manitobans," Pallister said.
The announcement follows the province releasing a tender in May 2020 for a company to use the existing "dark fibre" network to bring connectivity to underserved communities.
The thousands of kilometres of the network was first built to connect remote Manitoba Hydro generating stations and work camps but is now unused.
Central Services Minister and Brandon West Progressive Conservative MLA Reg Helwer said allowing Xplornet to use the existing dark fibre network significantly reduces the cost of bringing high-speed internet access to communities and speeds up the process. Doing so doesn’t cost the province any money, he said.
"This addresses approximately 97 per cent of the unserved and underserved areas of Manitoba," he said.
The plan will also improve cell service on transportation corridors, which previously posed a safety risk to Manitobans while travelling, he said.
The network itself will remain publicly owned, Helwer said Thursday, and there is no plan to sell the fibre-optic network to any private company.
Bill Macdonald, Xplornet’s executive vice-president for business development, said the deal gives the company a significant foundation to expand through.
"This allows us to focus our investments on last-mile and not duplicating backbone network. We’re truly excited about this opportunity and look forward to finalizing our agreement with the government," he said.
Poor cell service has long been an issue in Manitoba and one the Keystone Agricultural Producers has raised in the past. While no one from the organization was available to comment on the announcement, the group surveyed producers on the issue in 2020.
A majority of the 1,557 responses KAP received reported dissatisfaction with internet and cellular service and an unstable internet connection. Two-thirds of those who responded to the KAP survey said their cell service was interrupted at least once a day.
Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa Conservative member of Parliament Dan Mazier also made the issue part of his election campaign in 2019.
Provincial NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he was concerned the move could bring expensive and poor service to the newly connected communities.
"We need more competition, so as we’re looking to connect rural Manitoba to better cell service and more high-speed internet, why aren’t we having competition?" he said.
Xplornet will charge "urban-like" prices in rural areas, Macdonald said.
Kinew said his party would have liked to see a Crown corporation set up to manage the fibre-optic network and use local internet service providers to connect people.
"I much rather would have seen the local Manitoba-owned companies have a prominent role here," he said.
The final details of the province’s contract will be finalized in the coming weeks and Macdonald said he expects the service to come online within approximately the next two years.
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