Rural Communities in a Digital Age

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“Digital literacy and broadband access are not simply individual or household concerns. The lack of access and technical savvy for some affects educational methods and outcomes, civic engagement, community networking, and economic development for the community as a whole”

Doing a news Google for articles referring to the “digital age” during the last 30 days, I got nearly 1,700 hits. The first page contained articles on publishing, bookstores, photography, communication, team work, entrepreneurship and parenting. The purpose of this search was to establish, or confirm, just how ubiquitous ‘digital’ has become. As computers are increasingly an integral part of the workplace, employers benefit from a digitally skilled workforce while people with those skills enjoy increased employment potential. Furthermore home internet access and digital skills are a benefit to both employers and individuals in providing the opportunity for telework which lowers overheads for businesses and increases employees personal time by eliminating commuting. Individuals benefit in the form of financial savings, lifelong learning, communications opportunities, more consumer choices, access to health information and greater access to information about job availability. As information and services move online, this leaves those without connection increasingly at a disadvantage.

Many communities are doing a variety of activities to advance their digital readiness but as access to broadband is a necessary step, in 2009 the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties (AAMD&C) undertook a Rural Connectivity Gap Analysis by surveying ISPs and municipalities and producing a coverage map. Analysis of the results suggests that 34.1% of Albertans who reside outside of the seven major urban centers did not have access to broadband internet. Though 90% of Alberta’s land mass has zero broadband coverage according to this report, it is noted that the majority of those areas have no population. The broadband coverage map identifies areas that are served, underserved, or unserved by rural broadband providers. The study and coverage maps are available on the AAMD&C’s website at

    Municipalities and others can use the coverage map to help target broadband development policies in areas that are underserved or unserved, and as a baseline to track improvements in reducing the gap over time.

    With the rise of the digital age, access to the internet is increasingly involved in social, economic, cultural and educational spheres of life. Recognizing that, here are some examples from rural Alberta communities transitioning to the digital age. The Vulcan innovation Project is an initiative through the Vulcan Business Development Society and has partnerships with Lethbridge College and Palliser Regional Schools and Rural Alberta's Development Fund. One part of the project is to build technical community capacity through technical support and assistance to community and business ventures.

    The Hanna Learning Centre utilizes video-conferencing to expand the community’s access to services and learning opportunities. They also offer computer programs such as the ‘Seniors Helping Seniors’ program that helps seniors with the first steps in using a computer. A grade eight computer class teacher in Bashaw took a different approach, making Friday computer classes a community workshop where community members could stop in and get help from the students in learning how to set up and use social media like Facebook, streaming video, how share photos, etc.

    Both the Hanna Learning Centre and the VIP Technology Facilitator have offered an introduction to Nintendo Wii, a useful (and enormously entertaining!) way to keep fit once the outdoors becomes icy and treacherous.

    On the surface the digital world may seem urbanized and destined to make our rural communities anachronisms. But embraced as a tool, it can be just the opposite. From accessing education to sharing pictures and video with distant family to the ability to work even when the roads are blocked with snow. (OK, the death of the ‘snow day’ may not be a benefit); these are all possible with digital technology. No fitness centre (or bowling lanes or tennis courts or . . .) in your community? No problem. Set up a Wii in the community hall or a church hall. While embracing all the possibilities of the digital age won’t be the ‘death of distance’ that boosters claim, it will help our communities remain relevant and attractive places to visit, live and work.
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For more information about the content of this document, contact Humaira Irshad.
This document is maintained by Stacey Tames.
This information published to the web on October 27, 2010.
Last Reviewed/Revised on October 22, 2014.