Bridge River Valley, about 300 km from Vancouver, is a ruggedly beautiful mountainous region between Pemberton and Lillooet with an abundance of wildlife, pristine blue lakes, and alpine meadows. Once a highly prized area for gold mining in the 19th century, today it is known for its network of trails and spectacular opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, camping, fishing, horseback riding and skiing. Until recently it was also known for incredibly poor internet access.
Like many communities across Canada, Bridge River Valley found itself on the difficult side of the digital divide, where access to reliable high-speed internet is limited or non-existent due to insufficient infrastructure investment and the high costs to deliver it to these areas. CIRA’s Grants can address challenges like these by investing in community-led internet projects that help build a resilient, trusted, and secure internet for all Canadians.
In 2021, Minto Communications Society (MCS), a member-based non-profit internet service provider, received a CIRA Grant to improve internet infrastructure for five remote communities in upper Bridge River Valley. I recently spoke to Bob Calbick, MCS Director to learn more about the project and how CIRA funding has made it possible for them to actively participate in our digital society.
Until 2008 when Minto Communications Society was founded there was no broadband internet access at all in the area, and it remains the sole provider of broadband internet services in the region. Its core objective is the support of social development, education, and economic opportunities for upper Bridge River valley residents via reliable, high quality, and high-speed internet service. It is an LTE radio-based telecommunications system with five customer access radio sites located throughout the upper Bridge River valley and a central office facility in located in Gold Bridge. As a non-profit, all revenue from the sales of internet subscriptions and annual membership fees are invested back into improving their service.
Tourism is a main driver of the economy in the region, especially in the main commercial hub of Gold Bridge. “Nine months of the year it’s just a sleepy rural town, and all of a sudden the population just explodes with tourists,” Bob explained. The communities of Gold Bridge, Gun Lake, Tyaughton Lake, Gun Creek Road and Bralorne are also experiencing growth, with a 63% increase in permanent residents from 2017-2021. As well as visitors to the area, the home-based businesses and tourism operators throughout these communities need reliable internet service.
But until MCS was able to invest in improving their infrastructure, it struggled to meet the needs of the community. MCS’ original internet infrastructure was from 2008, and it was dated and at end-of life. It utilized 2.4/5.8 Ghz radio systems over publicly available radio spectrum and was limited to a speed of 5 Mbps. “We couldn’t support any more customers on the system and the bandwidth was maxed out,” Bob said. “The demand for service just grew and grew. We were really stretched, which led to the discussion of either we pack it in, or we go and try to find some funding and upgrade to continue service. So we chose the latter route.”
Photo: Bob Calbick
Like many projects funded by CIRA, updating and improving Minto’s infrastructure was an expensive undertaking, and the estimated cost of the project was $1.85 million. Ninety percent of their funding came via the Northern Development Initiative Trust’s Connecting British Columbia program, a provincial funding program under the StrongerBC Economic Recovery Plan. A stipulation of the government grant, however, was that MCS had to fund 10% of the project costs with other sources. Bob, a self-described “jack of all trades” at MCS, rolled up his sleeves and successfully applied for a CIRA grant in 2021.
“Given that we are a small non-profit, funding 10% of a major infrastructure build was difficult,” said Bob. “When we received the CIRA Grant, it gave us that leverage that allowed us to upgrade a rural network to a resilient and robust network.” In short, Bob said, it was a “godsend.”
Photo: Bob Calbick
After investing in purchasing, constructing, and installing improved infrastructure, all five communities of upper Bridge River Valley are now receiving high-speed internet service, and the CRTC mandated minimum rural broadband speeds of 50/10 Mbps are accessible to subscribers. Access to the internet has now been expanded to residents who could previously not receive service. “Since we started this project, we’ve gone from about 180 subscribers to about 240 subscribers. Our overall network traffic volumes have more than doubled,” said Bob.
Among the many benefits of improved internet access, people in the area have increased business and employment opportunities, access to distance learning, videoconferencing, and financial services like online banking. Andre Kuerbis, Principal, AFK Business Consulting and Services Ltd, said of his small business “we are so grateful for the recent upgrade of our internet services through the Minto Communications Society. It has not only significantly increased our abilities to provide our services, but it furthermore was also one of the factors to expand our capacity and create an additional part-time position in our company that is locally filled.”
Photo: Bob Calbick
Families in the community who are heavily involved in local business and community services can now have simultaneous video calls in the same household while before it was a juggling act. MCS also provides free high-speed internet service to the local public library in Gold Bridge so residents and visitors can use the library’s Wi-Fi.
Sal DeMare, who Bob described as a “power user” of MCS service, is a Director, Electoral Area A of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District. "Due to the COVID pandemic, the internet was essential for many meetings, online health care appointments, and remote work, etc. This trend has now changed how people do business and high-speed internet is a requirement for these activities especially in rural remote location such as ours. To say I am very pleased with Minto’s upgrade is just an understatement!"
Bob also noted the vital importance of essential services like telemedicine thanks to reliable internet access. “We are a single-road access community. During bad weather, that road is subject to slides and closures. When the road is closed, there is no access out. So the ability to access the services you need via the internet is critical.”
Photo: Bob Calbick
As Bob looks to the future of MCS, he envisions continuing to modernize the network. “Fixed-access radio is great for certain locations and certain communities, but it’s not the answer everywhere and the spectrum has its limits,” he said. “The radio sites are remote, and most don’t have grid power. We are now pursuing options where we can provide fiber-based access and transport that infrastructure to subscriber areas.” Fiber internet provides “that level of capacity, redundancy, and resiliency when it’s added to our fixed-access network”—but it doesn’t come cheap. Bob didn’t rule out the possibility of applying for a CIRA grant again in the future.
“I wish people knew more about what CIRA does and what resources you have,” he said. “CIRA’s been great to work with, and without you we couldn’t have accomplished what we did.”
If you have an idea for an internet project that can help bridge the digital divide facing remote, rural, northern, or Indigenous communities, CIRA Grants is now open for applications and closes on April 12 at 2 p.m. ET. Visit our website to learn more about how a CIRA Grant can impact your community and how to apply.