In the digital 21st century economy, connectivity to both the Internet and cellular service is life. And while much of rural Saskatchewan has better coverage than similar rural areas in southwest Manitoba, for instance, there’s still work to be done. As an example, in Hyas, population 70, you might need to go to the second story of your house in order to use your iPhone as a hotspot.
SaskTel has been building out “small cellular sites” over the last two years. This was noted in the presentation of the Crown corporation’s annual report on July 8. President and CEO Doug Burnett said, “Over the last couple of years we have added 103 towers in communities with populations as small as 50 people.”
Just a small portion of that list includes: Stenen, Torquay, Midale, Minton, Meacham, Loreburn, Birsay, and Neville.
Resort areas have also seen upgrades, Burnett noted. Meota, for instance, is on the list.
“We continue to look for other underserved areas in rural communities over the course of the coming year. We have budgeted to spend close to $80 million focused on improving rural coverage across the province. So, there is a fairly extensive push to try and address some of those locations that we think are underserved today,” Burnett said.
Don Morgan, minister responsible for SaskTel, said, “The challenge in Saskatchewan is that we're not a densely populated area like New York or Toronto. So we have difficulty in trying to spread the service across as large a geographical area as is possible. The small site towers give relatively good coverage in a small community or along one of the major thoroughfares.”
The impending advent of 5G will also have implications for smaller communities. 5G has much shorter range, but much, much higher bandwidth, even better than LTE or lower end fibre optic cable connections. And that may play into SaskTel’s future plans to get bandwidth out to rural communities.
“It is very much within SaskTel’s plans to use 5G in rural areas to improve coverage as an alternative to putting fibre to every location. Now there does need to be fibre into some location that is close, but rather than them running fibre to each residence. Using a tower with 5G would provide an outstanding experience in terms of coverage and speed, and that is very much the long-term plan,” Burnett said.
This would include the ability to use SaskTel Max.
“I would anticipate that it would probably include the full spectrum of services that we offer or can be offered in all of those locations,” Burnett said.
It may be cheaper for SaskTel to put up a 5G tower in a town like Norquay, as an example, than do fibre installations throughout the entire community. Burnett commented, “The cost of putting up the towers is not cheap but the cost of putting fibre into rural locations is astronomical.”
SaskTel intends to initially roll out 5G in larger centres, and then rural communities.
“It has so much additional capacity that it's a perfect solution for rural communities in an absolute perfect way to improve coverage in those locations,” Burnett said.