Parkland County is a county-sized municipality that has applied the open-access network model – pioneered by urban centers from Stockholm to Dublin, Ohio – specifically to meet the needs of a rural region. Located on the western border of Edmonton, capital of Alberta Province, and only hours from the province’s vast oil sands extraction industry, Parkland County is prosperous. Its primary industries include power generation, forestry, coal, oil and gas, advanced manufacturing, transportation, logistics and agriculture. One of its three business parks is the largest in North America. Most of this economic activity is concentrated in the east, within Edmonton’s economic zone. The small cities, towns, villages and hamlets to the west, for all of their natural beauty, lack employment opportunities and see a steady exodus of youth. One factor in the west’s isolation is lack of access to broadband, which has the potential to level the economic playing field.
In 2012, Parkland County completed the core of a network of 18 communication towers, ten in the west and eight in the east. Capitalized by grants, the towers have power and terrestrial connectivity and are open to operators of first-responder networks, mobile and wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), who need only rent space on a tower and install a radio to be in business. Parkland County has rugged terrain and is heavily forested, so plans call for construction of an “in-fill” network of smaller towers to extend service to even more of the population. The business model projects breakeven on operating costs within four years, with the more popular towers in the east helping to subsidize the less popular ones in the west, and take-up by WISPs, systems integrators and government agencies is strong.
Parkland County has adopted the Intelligent Community model of broadband-based development, and is now focused on growth of a knowledge-based workforce, innovation and digital inclusion. It has partnered with Green Hectares, an Alberta-based nonprofit that delivers tech-based education, mentorship and knowledge sharing to build vibrant rural economies centered on agriculture. Village halls were long the center of rural life in Parkland County, and the government has launched a Rural Community Network program that equips the halls with free Wifi, linked to the tower network. WiFi access gives new life to the halls’ role as community centers, and Parkland County is supporting the volunteers who run them with Web site development and an online reservation system for the rentals that generate their modest income. Six of 28 halls have already committed to the program and many more are expected. The same public-sector network now supports e-government applications from online applications to the streaming of Council meetings. While still early in its development as an Intelligent Community, Parkland County is proving how the model can succeed in the rural places of the world.